Into Blackness, week 3: Black Women in Space!

Welcome to Black History Month at Women At Warp! This is an installment of our month-long celebration of Starfleet officers and the adjacent personnel who are members of the Cosmic African Diaspora. These officers are curated in chronological order in an attempt to illustrate how their contributions have influenced humanity’s presence in the galaxy.

This week, we step into the 24th century! Within Star Trek lore, this century encompasses five series: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Picard, and Lower Decks. As I attempted to compile a list of Black characters, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that there were more than I anticipated. Like, way more. As a member of an often misrepresented group, this is an excellent problem to have!

Rather than compose a tome of who’s-who, I’ve decided to select some of my favorites, as well as some of the more… infamous characters, to illustrate just how impactful representation can be. Please note how the inclusion of auxiliary Black woman characters drops significantly after TNG, thankfully because more of these characters are seen in main crew roles.

TNG: 2364–2370

Capt. Tryla Scott (Ursaline Bryant) – dubbed one of ‘Starfleet’s Finest’ by Capt. Picard, Tryla Scottis one of the youngest captains, having obtained the rank faster than anyone in Starfleet history. Although she had only one on-screen appearance (“Conspiracy”: 1×25), she received more backstory in later novelizations.

Ensign Gates (Jocelyn Robinson) – helms officer on the Enterprise-D, Ensign Gates was a skilled tactical pilot. While the character was never given a first name, she appeared in 46 episodes across four seasons.

Fleet Admiral Taela Shanthi (Fran Bennett) – posted at several different starbases, Admiral Shanthi oversaw the deployment of starships in the fleet, including the allocation of vessels to Capt. Picard’s efforts to intervene in the Klingon Civil War.

Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard) – although she technically lived in the 21st century, Sloane was an aeronautical engineer who worked alongside Zefram Cochrane to develop humanity’s first warp-capable ship, the Phoenix. When the Enterprise-E and her crew traveled back in time to stop the Borg, Sloane eventually became a conscience to Picard when he spiraled into duress.

Captain Silva La Forge (Madge Sinclair) – mother to Enterprise’s chief engineer Lt. Cmmdr. Geordi La Forge, Captain La Forge was a career Starfleet officer, assigned the command of the USS Hera. When the Hera and all hands upon it were deemed lost, Geordi disobeyed orders to continue searching for his mother.

Yareena (Karole Selmon) – born into wealth and prestige, this Ligonian noblewoman was nearly ousted from her position when her husband decided to replace her by abducting Lt. Yar. Yareena (see what they did there?) challenged then-security officer Lt. Yar to battle to the death, as per her customs. Yar won (Go ‘fleet!), but Dr. Crusher revived Yareena, which enabled her to divorce her treacherous first husband, and hand over the life-saving vaccine that brought the Enterprise to Ligonia in the first place

DS9: 2369–2375

Kasidy Yates-Sisko (Penny Johnson) – a freighter captain by trade, Kasidy Yates married Captain Benjamin Sisko after being introduced by his son, Jake. As one of the few human women on the show, Yates served as an example of space operations outside of Starfleet, and as a moral compass for the Siskos.

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The appearance of these women on screen deeply impacted me as a child. Their presence showed me that Black women could not only excel in STEM fields, but that they could hold positions of power and be respected among their peers.

This phenomenon is reflected within Star Trek not only through the content itself, but also in it’s impact with its viewers. For example: Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space, became the first astronaut to appear on a Star Trek series as Lt. Palmer, junior grade. She cited Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) as her inspiration to pursue a career in space exploration, proving that representation absolutely matters.

What are your favorite appearances by Black actors in Star Trek?
Were there any Black characters that left an impression, for better or for worse?

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