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Lt. Uhura, Claire and Olivia – Thursday Night Sistas

Three characters have made Thursday night TV extra special. There may be no obvious link between Lt. Uhura, Claire Huxtable and Olivia Pope, but there is a thread. Nichelle Nichols, Phylicia Rashad and Kerry Washington portrayed characters who became heroines. These women prompted thousands upon thousands of other sistas to clear their schedules just to be sure that they could be present, in front of the TV every Thursday. Cooking, homework, hair – everything had better be done! Certainly, there have been other draws but here’s why these three Thursday night women are special.

Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura, Star Trek, Season 1 aired on Thursday nights on NBC

Lt. Uhura in command.

Lt. Uhura in command.

From 1966 – 69, Nichelle Nichols played Lt. Uhura, the communications officer aboard the USS Enterprise. The sister was in SPACE! This pivotal role in a series that’s etched deep into the fabric of American culture symbolized so much. She was attractive, smart, respected and had perfect outer space makeup.  Whoopi Goldberg, herself a Star Trek character, said she ran and told her family, “I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain’t no maid!” That may not seem like a huge moment today … then again … it may. But this opened the door to careers and professional titles for Black women.  The role of Lt. Uhura would be a first where an African-American woman was on par with her non-Black costars in intelligence and purpose. The woman was awesome.

She was also sexy. Lt. Uhura wasn’t a mother or a caretaker or a wife. She was single and free in an integrated cast and that led to opportunities for other groundbreaking moments like the first nationally televised interracial kiss. Lt. Uhura and the infamous Cpt. James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) were controlled by outer forces. They embraced and shared a sensual, seconds-long kiss that sent the nation into an uproar. How dare they! But they did, and according to the pair, they flubbed every take of the scene without the kiss to make sure that America got to see the real deal. In her biography Beyond Uhura, Star Trek and Other Memories, Nichols shares a particular letter from a white Southerner: “I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.” That may not sound like progress, but it was at the time.

Nichelle Nichols considered leaving the show after season one to return to her first love, musical theater. An encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed her mind.  She recalled what King told her: “Star Trek was one of the only shows that [King] and his wife Coretta would allow their little children to watch. And I thanked him and I told him I was leaving the show. All the smile came off his face. And he said, ‘don’t you understand for the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.’ ” So she stayed.

Because she stayed, a few decades later a real sister actually went out there in space, Dr. Mae Jemison, who credits Uhura as a role model. Nichols helped diversify NASA in tangible ways, as a recruiter for the NASA 8, a class of non-white and women astronauts. It all began with her command of the communications center on Thursday night TV.

Phylicia Rashad, Claire Hanks Huxtable, The Cosby Show, Thursdays NBC,  1982-1992

Phylicia Rashad with Bill Cosby as Cliff and Claire.

Phylicia Rashad with Bill Cosby as Cliff and Claire.

After 70’s sitcoms, we found Black women again in the kitchen and in predominately server roles, or in roles with little depth. Then along comes Claire Hanks Huxtable. Stylish and smart with mother wit. Even while she was trying to put five children in their place, there wasn’t a hair out of place or a bead of sweat on her brow. The woman wasn’t perfect but she almost had that mythical space called balance down pat. She was super bad!

Phylicia Rashad’s role as lawyer, wife and mother Claire Huxtable verified the existence of college-educated Black women with full lives. Along with her doctor husband Heathcliff (Bill Cosby), she parented with poise and strength, giving sage advice and never being overly critical or judgmental of her children. One of the things that was most special was that she liked her children and they liked her and they talked about real life situations that any color mother will deal with through the years. Learning issues, underage drinking and dropping out of college are problems with no particular color. However, in those moments where some cultural know-how was critical, she brought it like no one else.

Like Lt. Uhura, Claire was calm under pressure. She dealt with ordinary problems of the day and took command to keep things orderly and proper. There was a melody to her voice, her speeches almost sounded like songs, perhaps because of Rashad’s theater training. The role was special because of a unique time in African-American history. This was a generation past the Civil Rights era in which doors opened to educational institutions and professions. The characters weren’t long shots or make believe. Sistas could actually be Claire in the house next door or the office at the end of the hall.

Kerry Washington, Olivia Pope, Scandal, Thursday Nights, ABC, 2011 – present

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope.

Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope.

For some, this wasn’t a fit. “How on earth can you even put Olivia Pope in the same sentence as Lt. Uhura,” yelled a friend when discussing the concept. Yes, got it. There’s that matter of what many consider an  inappropriate relationship with a married man (who happens to be the President.) But we’ll put that aside for a second and come back to it after a review of the other piece in this Thursday evening special thread.

After The Cosby Show, many of the African-American themed shows moved to the then up-and-coming networks (Fox, UPN, etc. ) The main networks moved toward the Leave it to Beaver era again, as the black and brown characters had some prominent roles in ensemble casts, but few leading roles, particularly women. All it takes is one look at the awards shows and the cast lists to show how folks were all but erased from prominence.

Then with a big bang Kerry Washington steps in as Olivia Pope and blasts the next door open. The sister dresses immaculately, puts politicians in their place and has the courage to drink red wine on white furniture whenever she feels like it. She expertly runs her own business and is one of the most sought after PR experts in the country. A few folks are annoyed with Washington’s acting in the role, but the screams of the loyal Scandal fans drown those voices out.

Another key differentiating fact is that the show is based on the real-life career of Judy Smith, Crisis Expert and DC- based lawyer who worked in the White House tackling drama daily. While the presidential affair is fictional, Smith’s deft handling of newsworthy, gripping stories is well documented. In the role of Olivia Pope, Washington takes that truth and adds the Hollywood 60-minute thrill by managing her own cast of Super Friends who are quirky, capable, brilliant and loyal. And here’s the kicker for this new generation of Black women a few more steps removed from the 60’s – she’s flawed with parent issues, unsettled relationships and is attached to her cell phone just like any other professional girl that they know. Not one of those issues is tied exclusively to her ethnicity. They are smart, main character problems that you’d find on network TV on any given night. It just so happens it’s a Thursday.

Who’ll be next? Absolutely no clue, but the next Thursday Night Ladies are bound to entertain us and move the needle forward just like these three.

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This entry was posted on 12/28/2013 by in Cup of Coffee.
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