I took some time off from the Blogosphere last year. Since then, during the summer, I took my blogging in another direction by creating the Quantum Male Art Blog, http://qmaleart.blogspot.com. I welcome you to surf on over there and see what I’ve been up to. But as of this week, I’ve decided it’s time to start up The Quantum Blog once again. (Well, that and the fact that it’s been hard to keep my digital mouth shut all this time.) And for my first post of the re-started Quantum Blog, I’d like to tell you an interesting story. It was, I think, my last year in college when my friend Richard wanted to go to the New York State Museum and attend a retrospective on the photography of Flip Schulke (1930-2008), accompanied by a lecture by the photographer himself. If you’ve never heard of Flip Schulke, as I hadn’t, you’ll understand why this is a very timely post indeed. Flip Schulke is a photographer and photojournalist who documented both the Civil Rights Movement and the NASA Moon missions from the inside. Flip knew and traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself and shot photos of Dr. King and his family that no one who wasn’t on an intimate basis with him would ever have gotten. He became an actual friend of the King family. Not only that, he was a known pioneer in the field of underwater photography and went on expeditions with Captain Jacques Cousteau himself. Flip’s work also covered NASA’s endeavors at the very height of the space program in the 1960s, when America reached for the Moon. He photographed the astronauts and the space camp, and documented the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle projects. This is a guy who was “hands on” with history itself. As I write this, I’m just learning of his passing away last year. I had no idea. I met him only that one evening, but he left an impression. For a little while, I was in the company of someone who had done some important things.
For many years, I most closely associated Flip with what I considered the irony of the little bit of time that I spent talking with him. Richard and I were there to see his work and hear him talk of his experiences of knowing Dr. King and his family and being there for so much of what happened in those years, including the assassination. But when it came to his work with the space program, it came out that Flip and I had a common interest. We both enjoyed science fiction movies! At that exhibition of his work, I actually stood there with this man who had been at the right hand of our most revered civil rights leader, discussing the relative merits of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien! It made sense, actually, now that I think of it. Science fiction is not about “unreal” things, as many people seem to believe. It’s simply about taking reality and projecting it forward, or turning it around at a different angle and looking at it a different way. And many of the concerns of Flip’s work--the rights and dignity of all people regardless of their differences, the preservation of our natural environment, the understanding that humanity’s future must ultimately lie off Earth--are identical to or compatible with the concerns of science fiction. There could be nothing more natural than for this man to be a science fiction fan. Now, how many of you know another interesting thing: There is evidence that Martin Luther King Jr. himself was a Trekker!
It’s apparently true. There is a well-known story in Star Trek circles, told by Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura in the 1960s series and the first six films. It seems that at one point, Nichelle wanted to leave Star Trek. She didn’t believe she was being well or adequately utilized on the show. She thought of her role as being too limited to sitting on the Bridge of the Enterprise keeping “hailing frequencies” open. (In fact, I’ve heard stories that Gene Roddenberry was able to keep Uhura on the show only by promising NBC that she would never take command of the ship! This may account for all those times when Mr. Sulu [George Takei] was left in the Captain’s seat in lieu of Kirk, Spock, or Scotty, when in fact Uhura was directly behind Scotty in the chain of command. Better a Japanese man than a black woman running a starship on TV in 1967!) What changed Nichelle’s mind about leaving was her encounter with Dr. King. It seems that Dr. King and his family watched Star Trek together (as did my family and I back then). When she told King that she was leaving the show, King told her she mustn’t do it. He argued that even though she may have mostly been an interplanetary switchboard operator, it was important for people to see a black person, man or woman, in a position of responsibility in a show about the future. Star Trek, said King, was sending a message to the world that blacks would be part of a common tomorrow for humanity, just by the mere presence of Uhura. No matter the size of her role, she was important and had to stay. Thus inspired, Nichelle Nichols stayed with Star Trek. And not only did she continue in the role of Uhura, but when the original series ended, she went to work for the actual space program. It was Nichelle Nichols who helped to recruit the first African-American astronauts into NASA. And as it happened, a little black girl who watched Star Trek grew up with Uhura as one of her inspirations to show her that she could do something of meaning and value with her life. That little girl became an award-winning comedienne and actress on stage, film, and television. We know her today as Whoopi Goldberg; she played Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Another little black girl also grew up watching Uhura and was similarly inspired, not in the performing arts, but in the sciences. She became a physicist and the first African-American female astronaut. Her name is Dr. Mae Jemison, and she guest-starred as a Transporter Chief in the Next Generation episode “Second Chances”. You see, Dr. King was right.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said something that I think is the perfect summation of everything that is Star Trek, though I’m sure he wasn’t actually talking about Trek when he said it. Dr. King once said he refused to accept that “the is-ness of man’s presents nature renders him morally incapable of reaching up for the ought-ness that forever confronts him”. What he meant is that the challenge of being human is the challenge of believing that there is something better than our present state of being, our present way of life, and of striving to attain it. It is the challenge of believing that we can change for the better. And I’ll tell you something true: In six TV series (counting the animated show) and ten films (soon to be eleven), this belief, and the actualization of it, is all that Star Trek has ever talked about. That’s what Star Trek is. It’s not really about spaceships and ray guns, and people in uniforms and crazy costumes, and odd-looking people and beings with strange protuberances on their foreheads. It’s about the belief that one day we are going to be better. One day we are not going to be prejudiced. One day we are not going to be greedy. One day we are not going to let poverty and inequality exist. One day we will stop fighting wars (against each other). We will cease to be superstitious, stupid, and ignorant. We will value our human faculties of reason and the human quality of compassion that is its necessary complement. We will use science for what it is meant for: to improve our minds and enhance the quality of our lives. The entire body of written and filmed works that we call Star Trek is about just what Martin Luther King Jr. said: the idea that there will come a time in the future when we will get over being what we are and become what we ought to be.
All this comes to me as I write this now and remember the night that I met a man who walked with history and recorded it, and a man who appreciated the idea that humanity has a future. And it’s an even more apt thing to remember on this of all months, when we’ve just put a man in the White House who embodies everything that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted for America and the world. I never met Flip Schulke again after that night at the New York State Museum, but I’m grateful for that little moment of time that I got to exchange words with a man whose work straddled past, present, and future. I’m only sorry I didn’t know until now that he had died. But knowing it now makes the memory that much more special.