Star Trek, Martin Luther King and Imagining a Better World

February 18

“The starship ‘Enterprise’ set off from Earth on a peace-keeping and deep-space exploration mission, manned by a multinational, multiracial, mixed-gender crew”, so wrote Margot lee Shetterly, author of “Hidden Figures”.

“Hidden Figures” is the account about the previously invisible black female Mathematicians and Engineers who were key brains and participants in NASA’s launching of rockets into space. To gain a perspective on the significance of Star Trek, one needs to consider that it began to air in 1966, concurrent to the beginning of the black rights’ movements, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, and the beginning of desegregation in the States.  Naturally Star Trek would have been inspiring for those Black women (and men) who were working as Engineers and Mathematicians and who would help to put people onto the moon.

Star Trek imagined a different world in which humanity had out-grown racism and sexism. Shetterly recounts a meeting between Martin Luther King and Nichelle Nichols, the black woman who acted as Communications officer on Star Trek’s Enterprise. After Star Trek’s first season Nichols had taken steps to leave the show and take up her dream of acting on Broadway. “King said to Nichols, ‘You can’t leave the show. We are there because you are there. This is not a black role; this is not a female role. This is a unique role that brings to life what we are marching for: equality.’ In Star Trek, Black people have been imagined in the future.” Shetterly recounts that Star Trek “was the only show that King and his wife allowed their children to watch, and he never missed an episode.”

“Hidden Figures” relates an incident in which a Black woman Mathematician was sent to work in the East end aerospace area where the White Engineers and White women Mathematicians worked. When she could not find the toilets marked “colored” she was forced to walk across the lengthy compound to the West end to find a “colored” washroom. On the other hand, when Mathematician Katherine Goble Johnson was sent to work in the East end, she just assumed that the unmarked washrooms were as much for her as anyone else. Overcoming racism, sexism and every other kind of “ism” requires both political/social changes and interior changes of how we see ourselves.

The battle to overcome racism is inspired by people who, despite what others tell them, see themselves as equal. It requires a self-affirming way of seeing. Curiously, the journey to mental health requires a similar self-affirming way of seeing. Although often very necessary, the best doctors, therapists and medicines in the world cannot make someone well if she cannot imagine herself well. On the journey to mental health, we need to open our imaginations to a new possible, what could be. We need to see ourselves and others differently. We need to reimagine who we are as “healthy” and “whole”.

The mental health journey invites us to see beyond past conditioning, beyond the limitations that others put on us and to see not our health disabilities but our abilities, courage, strength and hope.

Gratitude Prompt: Give thanks for my part in opening the world to imagination.