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Black Trekkie: Tuning Out to Tune In

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Thursday, Jun 18, 2009
Avery Brooks, who fronts Star Trek: Deep Space Nine attended Oberlin College and performed a monologue of Paul Robeson my senior year, at our alma mater’s Black Alumni Reunion. This man is bossy. But DS9 requires a wholly different spectatorship than its fellow franchisees.

As a college student, I suffered from missing the latter few seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I had watched as a kid each Saturday evening at 7 PM, without fail. I was the only Trekkie in any household I knew, and was just lucky that folks tolerated this monopoly of the television each Saturday in the prime of prime time. It was not until I reached college that I would find a field and flock of comrades, yet had no time to actually see prime time TV.


Since Star Trek is another apocalyptic fantasy where humanity nearly destroyed itself, in our recovery, humanity has banished money and poverty by extension. This seems to explain the apparent lack of class diversity. Yet, I watch the episodes then and now, and each series reflects a very clear picture of how America projected its dominant caste fantasies concerning gender, race and class at the time.


All other forms of inequality are assumed to have been eradicated alongside most diseases. In the Star Trek universe, however, equality was really a project of assimilation just meant that everyone had some strange fusion, futuristic sense of morality that only differed by planet. It has taken President Obama to call the question of assimilation into question and value difference beyond PC jargon.
  


“You stay here and be re-assimilated,” says Three of Nine to Seven of Nine Auxiliary Processor of Unimatrix number one in Voyager.


Like all other cultures in Star Trek, Earth’s cultures are collapsed into one, despite the persistence of a variety of Earth’s languages. Yet, the behavior, accent, interests, spiritual beliefs, mannerisms, and other codes of conduct of the shows characters and dialogues are reflective of the dominate caste in America, as if we didn’t live in a multi-cultural society that respected difference. Only one captain would break this mold. Guess who?


The PC police, many of whom are inevitably fellow Trekkies, are so wed to the false idea of meritocracy that perhaps Negros don’t have the constitution to survive the apocalypse, and certainly no Star Fleet Academy; just that one Black kid in class really, really is a token when the job interviews counts and promotions are under way.


Attacking the PC police, in ‘Racism in Star Wars and Star Trek’ on the website Stardestroyer.com, self-defined bi-racial writer offers an entertaining alternative to tuning out in order to tune in:


“Race and culture are treated as synonymous and interchangeable concepts in Star Trek. The above examples are merely a smattering, and you could compile many pages of examples by watching enough Star Trek episodes. In fact, you could take each and every occurrence of the word “culture” in Trek dialogue, replace it with “race,” and it would still be completely appropriate in context (it’s an interesting experiment- try it!).”


To cut right to the chase, even Changelings are white. White male actors overwhelmingly portray characters across all the civilizations throughout every galaxy. This means that Star Trek presents all species throughout the cosmos as all-American in the face of our reality. ‘All-American’ is unrealistic, but the stuff of fantasy. In short, Star Trek reflected the socio-political contexts of its time, which is still a static narrative in our popular culture. To tell the truth, Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Voyager series strikes all the chords of fear that Hilary laid out in her presidential campaign. She’s more man than any man to command a starship.


In reality, however, Star Trek was just like the multi culturalism of the time: We’re all the same: We all have the potential to be white, middle class.


Ethnic Stereotypes in Star Trek


Throughout the Star Trek franchise, Klingons are violent and carnal, and Vulcans are emotionless, super smart, excellent at martial arts, complete with slant(ed) eyes and Zen gardens and meditation practices. These were the first ‘foreigners’ that humanity encountered, which is again reflective of the life and times of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.


The natives are truly restless and rebellious in Star Trek: Voyager. As rebels, the Maquis are frankly indigenous Americans shown through tired, but effective stereotypes of the hot-blooded Latina and earthy Native-American crewmembers. The PC Trekkies prefer the superficial analysis of the Maquis as proxies for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, but the clear stereotypes betray a more deep seeded sense of guilt and therefore projector of terror over the terms of the settlement of this land.


Q are the arrogant upper-class. Betazoids reflect the eccentric Greek/Romans, a stereotype carefully reinforced by the archetypal Greek-looking actress and personae of the part. The Borg are Nazis bent on perfection through logic. Ferengi are greedy, money-mongering stereotypes of Indians, complete with weird death rituals. As a species they totally prepared to subordinate themselves to money and status at every turn, though Ferengi as the Hindi word for ‘foreigner’ is a dead giveaway.


Back to Earth. or, ‘”Old Europe.”


Humans in Star Trek are white and the ways that this is reinforced are manifold and too overreaching and nauseating to cover in any one sitting. Viewing each crew, humans are American, and Americans are white, plus a few charismatic ‘Others’. That’s the basic Hollywood narrative of black best friends and intelligent Asians. Moreover, when totally out-gunned or dominated by sophisticated technology, our Starfleet heroes are always vaqueros due to some aspect of our humanity, for example, we won’t leave of injured behind. 


In the Star Trek universe, humans are a young species, relatively new to space travel as compared to the most other species. We’re prone to rash behavior and acting on instinct rather than forethought and consideration. Hence, our new world values always trump those of the older worlds. Sound familiar? Star Trek is just a first world dialogue with no real Third World realities or sensibilities. Perhaps we all have been actually assimilated.


The same goes for gender. Men are men and women, women. Consider Uhura answering the phones in the original series. It was a subservient role reprised in the character Hoshi the Star Trek: Enterprise series, as well as the new Uhura in the 2009 Star Trek movie, both as sophisticated linguists cum communications specialists. There is also Dr. Crusher caring for the needy, and the empathetic counselor Troy holding everyone’s hands in the TNG series. Not to mention the franchise’s creator’s wife providing the voice of the ever-helpful computer, readily awaiting every command.


Women in Star Trek stay in their respective places. Most captains are men, and most of the women in leadership are not in combat an inevitably the show posits combat as inevitable and unavoidable, requiring brute, male force. Further, Star Trek’s first captain is as American as apple pie, racism and cola. He is aptly named Jim, and embodied the maverick cowboy role. He could be George Bush.


Mixed “species” folks in the Star Trek universe are perpetually tragic mulattos. Notably, these folks almost inevitably prioritize their ‘humanity’, which is often demonstrated through adherence to white, middle-class American values, though admittedly every “species” in Star Trek only has one culture; others are rebels.


These mulattos span beyond Spock in the original series, to Deanna Troi and Worf, and his son in TNG. Interestingly, race, including their tragic mulatto child is ignored in the only actual, regularly appearing interracial couple in all of Star Trek, despite the couple carrying over between two separate series within the franchise. Yet, mixed race/species is itself a deficit, an axis upon which the characters provide ample fodder to discourage cross breeding.


The Compassionate Captain


I’ll admit it. I’m a Trekkie—always have been, always will be. I watched reruns of the original series early each Sunday morning, and was in ecstasy when the Next Generation debuted in 1987. Having that introduction, I adored Voyager, Enterprise the animated series and the films. Deep Space Nine is other-worldly and a great departure from all the other all-American captains. DS9 was an unexpected series. I was never able to connect with the show from its initial debut a year before TNG ended till 2009. It’s a mature show and requires a different spectatorship than the blunt force and violence littering the other series. DS9 is dialogue heavy.


Avery Brooks plays Star Trek’s only on-going non-white captain. As the only series in the franchise to take place on a stationary space outpost rather than a ship, Brooks’ character essentially brokered rebuilding after an ending a brutal occupation. Not only is he command the station, Benjamin Sisko’s place in the universe is justifying by the religious veneration he earned off the bat in the pilot episode, on the local world by stumbling upon another species whom they his host-planet reveres as Gods.


DS9 left all other Star Trek series behind. Few words could begin to sum the relevant social issues faced in each and every episode. And these weren’t just theories of dealing with difference. For example, the episode “Far Beyond the Stars” from DS9 season four literally shows conversations that Americans simply do not have in mixed company, producing results unimagined thus far on any screen. Ben Sisko may have been our popular culture’s only ongoing example of a Black man in a leadership position with authority (i.e. not just hustling and jiving with street credibility, nor the just as ethereal Dennis Haysbert on 24 as the president, so little authority did his character generate).


Not that the Star Trek universe never broke any ground. Certainly, the series is credited with America’s first on-screen interracial kiss, which is for majority Trekkies a supreme source of pride, heralded as a landmark anti-racist act. Yet, a kiss from a patriarchal womanizer who conquered blue, green and/or horned females throughout the galaxy virtually negates the potential radical statement: Jim will screw anything, a narrative deeply reflected in the new Trek flick.


Yet, Deep Space Nine proved to be the most progressive series within the entire franchise of five separate series, an animated series (with one episode dedicated to the “Slaver Weapon” with the Black secretary character taking a lead role for once!), and over twice as many big screen films. In one episode, for example, a former slave driver and a slave’s girlfriend spend the bulk of the episode alone in one spacecraft, tracking down an escaped slave ship, crossing many paths of the underground railway along the way. How did we live with ourselves, whips in hand or shackled?


The dialogue they generate provides a map for the sorts of conversations societies must inevitably have to eradicate social inequality, and not the eradication of difference itself. Dare we share our secrets?

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