When I was a kid, mankind had already walked on the moon, planted their flags in her and moved on to new business, mainly satellites. But, in Hollywood we were all over the galaxy.
At least white people were.
A handful of token blacks were out there, too, though. Back then, on TV and in film, blacks in space stood out for me like flies in milk.
I had a few faves though…
Well, I’m sure you all remember that black woman from the original Star Trek TV series, Lieutenant Uhura, which bore a striking resemblance to my elementary school’s name, (Uhuru Sasa, a swahili phrase meaning Freedom Now). C’mon, you gotta remember that galactic receptionist with the mini skirt, killer legs and perm, played with a great deal of grace by Nichelle Nichols.? Of course you do.
How about Colonial Tigh from the original Battlestar Galactica? I mean, sure, the show only lasted one season (though us diehard fans knew it should have gone longer, which explains the success of its comeback) but you gotta remember him. He was played by a fairly famous face at the time, especially if you dug your blaxploitation flicks. The actor’s name was Terry Carter.
And, you may remember that black guy from the original Planet of the Apes? If you’re black you probably do. He was the black astronaut that wound up stuffed in the Simian Museum of Natural History. Yep, good ole’ Lieutenant Dodge. Played by an actor that, in his acting career, didn’t get much further than that museum, Jeff Burton.
Who can forget Lando Calrissian, that space pirate turned businessman in the best Star Wars film to date, “The Empire Strikes Back”? Yep, Mr. “Colt 45, it works every time” himself, the black world’s consummate leading man, at least looks-wise, until Denzel came along, the great Billy Dee Williams.
I’m sure there were a few more (and feel free to shout them out in the comments) but Pre 80s there wasn’t much to look at if you were looking for blacks in space, and from my memory, this was the best sci-fi had to offer…That is, minus enough makeup to obscure their humanity, let alone their races.
People like: One of the original Black Girl Magicians, the great Whoopie Goldberg as Guinan on Star Trek: TNG
And the man with the visor! Commander Geordi La forge
And good ‘ole Captain Sisko from Deep Space 9
…just to name a few.
Then came the 80s, and suddenly sci-fi went ahead and got real on us. I mean, real outer space was all the rave with the invention of the Space Shuttle. Took off like your 60s/70s model spacecraft but damn if it didn’t land like an airplane/drag race car (parachute and all).
And they needed people to fly this thing, and people to do whatever they be doing up there: launching and/or fixing spy satellites and militarizing space. I used to wonder if they’d ever let any blacks up there. Richard pryor had some thoughts on this:
The eighties gave us a number of black astronauts.
The three I remember well are:
Dr. Guion Stewart Bluford Jr.: His being the first African-American in space, I remember him best. August 30,1983 found him aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle mission as a mission specialist, a night launch, the first I believe. I remember watching that launch and feeling an overwhelming sense of excitement, fear and pride, all jockeying for control of my teenage heart. Dr. Bluford is an aerospace engineer with a Ph.D from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He is also a colonel in the US Air Force.
Dr. Ronald McNair- I remember him well for a number of reasons. One being our names are very similar. The second being the park across the street from where I grew up on Eastern Parkway, which used to be named for some white guy whose name I can’t remember because all the parks, streets, avenues, hell, all the everythings were named after a bunch of white guys in Brooklyn, was renamed after McNair. There’s even a statue of him in the park and everything. And thirdly, well, because he was tragically taken from us too soon when in 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded a minute or so after its launch.
Dr. Mae C. Jemison: Not only was, hell, is she a doctor and surgeon and engineer, but she was the first black woman to grace the galaxy as a member of the crew of the space shuttle Endeavor (pretty ballsy considering what happened a few years earlier) as the Mission Specialist.
Three remarkable people, who filled in the black hole in the space program!
And then there were the human computers, black women, Hidden Figures, working behind the scenes to ensure that the space program got off the ground. They were the focus a film nominated for a number of academy awards, but the true story of these women is even more fascinating then how it was portrayed in the film. Three of these women were featured in the film. They were:
Truth be told, we’d likely still be dreaming of reaching the stars if not for these industrious individuals, so I just wanted to take a moment out to acknowledge them this BLM.