There are some things we are allowed to take for granted. For instance, portraying inter-galactic travel on a TV show requires us to imagine worlds that do not exist yet since there is arguably no immediate real-life consequence, we can get away with it.
But imagine if the same TV show asked a black woman and a white man to kiss on-screen in a never-before-seen action in a country’s history. That would have immediate consequences.
Both of these scenarios happened in 1968 in hit TV show Star Trek. But looking back some 51 years afterward, the second one is not an image we can take for granted.
In the 1960s America was fighting a war in Vietnam, hoping that they could nip communism in the bud before the small country almost 9.000 miles hurt Americans.
It was the proverbial war dreamed up by old men for young men to die. But you could be made into an enemy if you spoke against it, as Muhammad Ali saw.
In the 1960s, America had a president shot by someone who probably did not agree with his politics. John Fitzgerald Kennedy had won the presidency promising that “the government possessed big answers to big problems”.
Some of the big problems included poverty, inequality and racial injustice.
Lyndon Baines Johnson picked up from where JFK had been forced off, advertising a “Great Society”. He had good enough plans for African-Americans too.
When Martin Luther King Jr and the rest of the relentless fighters for civil rights convinced the Democratic Party that freedom and dignity for racial minorities needed to be guaranteed by law, the white Democrats in the South left the party in droves.
The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966.
In 1967, the Commonwealth of Virginia wanted to defend the status quo ban on interracial marriage but the Supreme Court ruled in favour of an interracial couple.
In 1968, MLK was shot by someone who definitely did not agree with his politics. Three years before, Malcolm X had been killed too.
The “color line”, as W.E.B. Du Bois calls it, has always been a problem to overcome but in no time after the Civil War was the tensions of the “color line” clearer than in the 1960s.
But in November of 1968, Nichelle Nichols playing the intelligent Uhura and William Shatner playing commanding Captain Kirk, locked lips on-screen in Star Trek.
The fall-out from this “romance” would be hailed as a barrier-breaking and even rebellious act. Those were the times.
The kiss was not even the first interracial kiss in Star Trek. But the earlier kiss between Filipino-American BarBara Luna and Shatner was not considered culturally significant or topical.
And later, Shatner would even say that he and Nichols had been asked not to fully kiss. He added that what they did was brush lips, but with Nichols’ head obscuring their lips.
However, Nichols in her book Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, insisted that they did kiss.
The scene itself was not directed as romantic but rather a consequence of telekinesis. This was perhaps in fear of what viewers would say about interracial romance.
But since then, “Uhura and Kirk’s Kiss” has become a huge reference point for when people want to make the argument that art can push social and political boundaries.
The kiss was in no small way provocative for the times. Across the country, black and white people were still largely segregated in going about their lives. To show them interracial kissing was a bit mind-boggling.
It had been only a year since the Supreme Court had said it was legal for couples of different races to get married.
Polls showed that only 20% of Americans were in favour of race-mixing relationships at that time
In 2018, Smithsonian would write that “a black woman kissing a white man was a daring move” for 1968. But culture had to be challenged.
For National Public Radio, Eric Deegans had this to say: “[The kiss] suggested that there was a future where these issues were not such a big deal. The characters themselves were not freaking out because a black woman was kissing a white man. … In this utopian-like future, we solved this issue. We’re beyond it. That was a wonderful message to send.”
The issue had to be forced on conservative-minded people who could not bear to see intimacy, one of the most vulnerable yet connective human conditions, between different races.
He did not live to see the kiss but Nichols’ would say if it hadn’t been for MLK we might not have seen her make history. She wanted to quit Star Trek to go sing on Broadway but King told her to stay.
He had said to her: “You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close…you changed the face of television forever…For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people.”
Perhaps, King was one of those who believed that art had the ability to cause life to react in a certain way.
Later Nichols leveraged her fame from Star Trek to do ambassadorial work for America’s space office, NASA. She was emphatic on recruiting people of diverse backgrounds for NASA programs.
The kiss, however brief, has shaped a nation’s psyche for about 50 years. And played its role towards bending the course of history towards harmony.