Uhura (TOS)

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Name: Uhura
Occupation: Communications officer
Fandom: Star Trek: The Original Series
Uhura on the cover of Furaha #4 (1975)
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Uhura is a character from Star Trek: The Original Series, played by Nichelle Nichols. She was the communications officer and a translator aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. When it was needed, Uhura readily and capably assumed control of the helm, navigation and science stations on the bridge.

The character was one of the first black women main characters in a major television show, and became a cultural role model, receiving praise from Dr. King himself, and encouraging black women into science careers (see: The Uhura Effect.) The kiss between Uhura and Kirk during 1968 episode "Plato's Stepchildren" is also widely held as holding special significance as a very early occurrence of interracial kissing on American television, although some fans question its signifiance due to the dubcon aspect of its setup.

Despite intense fanon interest about her, few canon facts are actually known about Uhura. Noticeably, her first name was never given in the original series, and was a topic of much fannish discussion before finally entering official canon in 2009.

Canon & Fanon

In 1967, The Star Trek Writers Guide stated Uhura's birthplace was the United States of Africa, although this was never outright stated in canon.

Uhura is known to speak Swahili. Fanon holds that Uhura is from Kenya, an idea supported by the tie-in novels.[1]

Uhura's First Name: Penda? Nyota?

Uhura's first name was never revealed in the original series, and she did not have an official canon name until 2009 when the name "Nyota" was used in Star Trek: Alternate Original Series. In that film, her name is a running joke: Kirk apparently doesn't know either, and only finds it out in an intimate moment between the two of them.

The name used in Abram's movie, however, was first mentioned in William Rotsler's 1982 licensed tie-in book, "Star Trek II Biographies." Despite the fact that Rostler's book contains many errors, such as the existence of a sister for Kirk named "Michele," and the fact that Kirk was not born on Earth, "Nyota" became her accepted canon name.

Fans, however, had agreed upon a different name long before "Nyota." That name was "Penda," and it was used as early as 1975.


From an LoC by Mary Lou Dodge in T-Negative #27 (April 1975):

A friend consulted with a Tanzanian professor who is a Swahili expert: the Swahili noun for Love is Upendo, but when it was made into a name the U is dropped. Since, the expert said Uhura is not really correct Swahili (well, language changes over a couple centuries), the first name would probably be English feminized like the last name -- Penda Uhura. (Information provided by Dr. Richard Kurtz, Notre Dame University.)


Regarding Uhura's first name: fanon vs canon:

Natonne Elaine K was starting a fan club called Fans of Penda Uhura and Hikaru Sulu and wants some clarification on those characters' two first names -- she points out that Mary Louise Dodge in her capacity as a spokesperson for the STW has given her some information:

As mentioned previously, Ms. Dodge was extremely helpful. For example, Ms. Dodge stated that during the mid-1970's, Dorothy Fontana announced at a convention that the first name of Sulu was "Itaka" [2] and the first name of Uhura was the Swahili name for love ("Upenda" or "Penda"). In addition, Ms. Dodge stated, that to the best of her knowledge, "Hikaru" was first used in Vonda N. McIntyre's novel, The Entropy Effect. From our research and inquiry, "Itaka" has never been well received by the fans. In contrast, "Hikaru" seems to be well accepted by the fans. This is why this organization favors this name. In reference to "Penda," besides the information provided by Ms. Dodge, members of this organization have heard about fans selecting "Penda" as Uhura's first name in the mid-1970's. What occurred first: Dorothy Fontana announcing "Penda" as Uhura's first name or the fans selecting this name? Or, was the selection of "Penda" by Star Trek fans an act of approval of the name chosen?... In recent novels published by Pocket Books/Timescape, the name "Nyota" (which means "star", thereby Nyota Uhura meaning "Star Freedom" [see Uhura's Song]) has surfaced as Uhura's first name. As far as this organization can determine, "Nyota" first appeared in William Rotsler's Star Trek II Biographies. [3] Rotsler's book contains many errors, such as the existence of a sister for Kirk, "Michele" and the fact that Kirk was not born on Earth. Since there are gross errors surrounding the biography of a major character such as Kirk, the credibility for the other biographies is weakened. Thus, FOPUAHS would like to know, is Rotsler's version considered official? Rostler states that "Hikaru" is Sulu's first name. We realize that Rotsler's book was published after McIntyre's novel. Hence, Rostler probably derived Sulu's first name from The Entropy Effect. Likewise, Uhura seemed to lack a first name in the novels until after Rotsler's book was published. Thereafter, writers of Star Trek novels began to incorporate "Nyota" into their novels. [4]

Among some fannish groups, Uhura's first name became a battle between canon/tie-in novels and fanon/zines:

I just don't know about this movement to make "Penda" Uhura's first name. I'm usually not one to pick at details but a name is pretty important. It seems like every Star Trek book I've ever read (and that number is close to 100) that mentions Uhura's first name says it's Nyota. I remember reading an article somewhere, sometime in the distant past (maybe a Best of Trek?) that said her name was Penda. But, I'm much more inclined to take the general consensus of a lot of books rather than someone who simply says what her name is. If Penda was "officially" recognized, all those books would be rendered untrue. [5]


In a 1990 zine foreword for Starbound #2, Nichelle Nichols herself affirms that Uhura's nickname is Penda/Upenda. (She spells it "Upenda" in the foreword; the name spelled as "Penda" many times in the story):

Consider the deep-welled friendship between Uhura and Christine in "Hot Time In The Old Town". The author, in this case, wisely chose a light-hearted approach to their strongly felt relationship. These are two women totally at ease with one another (note Christine's use of Nyota's nickname, Upenda, obviously stemming from years of shared adventure on and off the starship Enterprise). They really know one another, and so their emotions are very real and natural and their friendship survives through it all, even their different tastes in music. Their mutual trust and quirky senses of humor are ties that bind them so nicely. (They truly remind me of Majel and me...okay, who's been eavesdropping?!?!)


Putting [a history of K/S fandom] together would be a pain in the royal ass, though, and would have to include some of the history of general Trek fandom as well. A good point is Uhura's first name. I don't know when the COMPENDIUM came out, but "Nyota" is not how I think of Uhura. Penda was used in a story in the 70's (does anyone know which one?) and fandom took it up. It was one of those things which seemed right and was used by so many that it became part of the fannish lexicon even though it wasn't in the aired Trek. When an author uses Penda. it says she has either read a lot of the old zines or she is an old-time fan.. [6]

Pre-1985 Fanworks and Penda

The tie-in novel, "Uhura's Song," was published in January 1985 and that author utilized "Nyota."

This is a partial list of the many fanworks that used the name "Penda" instead:

Secondary Canon

Cultural Impact

Cover of Probe Special Issue 1 "The Goddess Uhura" (1976)

As a Black Role Model

Despite being a visible presence on the show, Nichols has spoken of her early frustration at the limitations imposed on her role on the series. She faced oppressive resistance from a network concerned about the reactions of its affiliates to her presence onscreen; her lines in scripts were often cut.

After the first season, Nichols was tempted to leave the series and work toward a Broadway career. The day after Nichols told Gene Roddenberry about her plan to depart the show, she had a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr. that changed her mind. King (who told her "I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.") told her that she was an important role model for young black children and women across the country. In a 2011 interview, Nichols described meeting King and of his encouragement:

He complimented me on the manner in which I'd created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you. He said, no, no, no. No, you don't understand. We don't need you on the - to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for. So, I said to him, thank you so much. And I'm going to miss my co-stars.

And his face got very, very serious. And he said, what are you talking about? And I said, well, I told Gene just yesterday that I'm going to leave the show after the first year because I've been offered - and he stopped me and said: You cannot do that. And I was stunned. He said, don't you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. He says, do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch. I was speechless. [7]

Indeed, Uhura was a positive influence. Actress Whoopi Goldberg, and astronaut Mae Jamison both claim Uhura as an early role model. [8]

In her book of essays, Racism 101, Nikki Giovanni writes "I've been a Trekkie since the television series Star Trek began. I was intrigued that a sister, Nichelle Nichols, was the communications officer."[9]

After the series ended, Nichols volunteered her time in a successful NASA campaign aimed at recruiting African Americans and women.[10]

See: The Uhura Effect

The Kiss

The show's episode "Plato's Stepchildren" is often (though mistakenly) cited as one of the first interracial kisses on U.S. television.[11]

In that episode, a mind controlled Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura kiss. Both Shatner and Nichelle Nichols claim that there was no actual physical contact between them during the scene in question, due to pressure from NBC. [12]

While the studio was concerned about reaction to the episode, viewer reaction was largely positive. In 2001, Nichols said:

The mail poured in. We had more mail on that episode than any other episode in all of the time of Star Trek. But Gene [Roddenberry] said to me over a letter from the fanmail, "This one letter in here, this is the extent of the negative mail that we've received." And it was from a man in the South who said "I don't believe in the integration of races and the fraternization of the races, but anytime a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a girl in his arms that looks like Lieutenant Uhura, he ain't gonna fight it." So so much for the worries and the concerns about whether people can handle it, so I think we knew we were on the right track. [13]

Some fans have turned a more critical eye on this kiss. From a 2009 discussion:

But... am I the only one who is really bothered by this being used as a great example of something wonderful, since the Kirk/Uhura kiss is clearly non-consensual by both parties and is actually a form of sexual harassment/assault?


In fact, non-consensual sexual contact between white men and black women has long been considered "okay" and a way to enforce white power over women of color; the aliens forcing the kiss were shown as white after all. The forced kiss was also meant to demean and humiliate Kirk as well; perhaps not quite as far as making him a "n----- lover" but it was not meant as a shining example of interracial harmony.

If Kirk and Uhura had kissed because, you know, they were happy or in love or whatever, then yeah, I could see this as being a great progressive moment in which we can all take pride as Star Trek fans. But for me, it's hard to get past the very problematic issues (which were, of course, intended as such in the script) of power and consent, so I can't really be thrilled about "the first [sic] interracial kiss on teevee."

...as for the kiss in Plato's Stepchildren, it was badly played and written. It had more to do with the lies Whites tell about black women and black bodies and, well, it kinda makes me sick to my tummy. I don't believe that the kiss can ever be taken on it's own. It was a big deal because racist and sexist American and Europen [sic] aesthetics made it a big deal. Just. Yuck.[14]




Caption: You say the black crewmembers have siezed all the weapons and are in a state of mutiny? And that we're in terrible danger? What do you mean "we" white man?" (cartoon showing Uhura from the early 1970's, by Alan Haney)

Sample Fanart





















Meta/Further Reading

External Links


  1. ^ An Uhura Question. (Accessed June 4, 2009).
  2. ^ The fan-created zine, USS Enterprise Officers' Manual (Interstellar Associates, January 1980) by Geoffrey Mandel also gives Sulu the first name of "Itaka"
  3. ^ Rotsler, William, Star Trek II Biographies (Wanderer Books, December 1982).
  4. ^ from Interstat #129/130 (July/August 1988) - the surname Rotsler was consistently written as "Rostler" (sic) in the article
  5. ^ from Interstat #131/132 (September/October 1988)
  6. ^ from The LOC Connection #44 (August 1992)
  7. ^ NPR interview: "Star Trek's Uhura Reflects On MLK Encounter" (Accessed 24 Jan, 2011.)
  8. ^ Social History: Star Trek as Social Phenomenon. (Accessed May 21, 2009)
  9. ^ Giovanni, Nikki (1994). Racism 101. W. Morrow. ISBN 978-0-688-04332-2.
  10. ^ Wikipedia entry. (Accessed May 24, 2009.)
  11. ^ Was Kirk & Uhura’s Kiss Actually the First Interracial Kiss on TV? on Heavy.com, June 12, 2021
  12. ^ Plato's Stepchildren (episode). (Accessed May 26, 2009).
  13. ^ Trek Today - Nichols Talks First Inter-Racial Kiss. (2001) (Accessed May 26, 2009)
  14. ^ The Kiss. (Accessed May 26, 2009)
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