Star Trek appeals — across generation, across gender, across language, across nationality — because from the very first episode it offered a bold, optimistic vision of the future; a vision so distinct from our own contemporary 21st century world as to seem at first glance to be more fantasy than science fiction.
Forty-seven years later, Star Trek endures for many fans precisely because of this fantastic quality. Five centuries into the future, humanity has forged a “more perfect union” with hundreds of alien races to build (and maintain) a peace that spans most of explored space and across one-fourth of the galaxy. In fact, the constant theme of Star Trek across all five series and twelve movies is one of unity: above all else, Star Trek is the story of community united across race, gender, class and even species to build a brighter tomorrow. Most of our favourite Trek adventures detail the struggle to overcome the obstacles that impede unity — whether barriers of language or distance or culture or war or time — through technological innovation, political wrangling, or personal ingenuity.
The prize for this unity is clear through Roddenberry’s vision: the United Federation of Planets offers its members an end to poverty, disease, and even war.
But, rarely does Trek interrogate the cost of that unity.
In the world of Star Trek, humanity is steadfastly focused on the common goal of boldly going where no one has gone before; so much so, that conflicts arising from racial, gender, or sexual difference between humans simply don’t exist. And, I mean, not at all.
In fact, if the United Federation of Planets is a stand-in for the United States of America, the world of Star Trek provides a vivid interpretation of the post-racial America popularized in political punditry following the election of this nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama. In the popular notion of post-racial America, race exists, but only as an “accessory” identity that augments (but does not conflict with) membership in mainstream American culture. Thus President Obama is Black, but throughout most of his 2008 campaign and even in much of his presidency, he has taken great pains to downplay the cultural, linguistic, and even political influences of his Blackness so that he might maintain the illusion of a Black identity that is at once present while also non-disruptive, and therefore accessible (and acceptable) for White America. In short, President Obama tries very hard to be both Black, and still “one of us.” In so doing, his racial identity becomes “non-threatening,” precisely because it is perceived to be no longer fundamentally distinctive.
Similarly, the race of some of Star Trek’s most popular human characters of colour is treated less like meat and more like seasoning. We know that Lt. Uhura is proudly African, yet reference to her racial identity is limited to some African art in her quarters, fluency in Swahili, and her characteristic over-sized earrings. Lt. Sulu’s Japanese American heritage is rarely (if ever) addressed in the show despite actor George Takei’s vocal activism on the part of the Japanese American community based on his personal experiences with internment. Lt. Cmdr Geordi La Forge, a character explicitly conceived as being of African heritage — and played by Kunta frickin’ Kinte — never mentions his experiences as a Black African in the 24th century or in Starfleet. In fact, other than being born to the African Confederation (wherein even the distinctiveness of contemporary individual African nations has been dissolved), La Forge is barely touched by his Blackness. Taken together, these characters while being visibly people of colour are nonetheless unobtrusively minority, and instead remain deeply assimilated into the over-arching cultural homogeny of the Federation mainstream.
In other words, in the 24th century, race exists, but race doesn’t really matter because we’re all really the same. Even with the obvious allegories of Star Trek’s alien species to various races and nations, this message endures: in the episode of The Next Generation (TNG) “The Chase,” we learn that all humanoid species in the Alpha Quadrant — including Klingons, Cardassians, Vulcans, Romulans, and Humans — share a common genetic template seeded across the galaxy by an ancient primordial humanoid species. Says the Romulan ambassador to Capt. Picard upon learning of these findings, “it would seem that we are not completely dissimilar after all; in our hopes, or in our fears.”
Now, I get why this post-racial vision appeals — it is a compelling fantasy to imagine that race, and therefore racism, can cease to be a problem. But, like the Borg, do we risk going too far in our quest for harmony that we eliminate all individuality? Like Hugh and the other rebel Borg, I suffer dissonance at the notion of this post-racial unity. My identity as an Asian American woman is more than the languages I speak or my choice in fashion accessories. My gender and racial identity influences every aspect of my life, sometimes in subtle ways, but always as a part of the fundamental statement of who I am.
And, that’s why Benjamin Sisko is awesome.
For the first time in Star Trek history, the writers offer a Black man who is more than just superficially Black. Benjamin Sisko fully embodies his Blackness, and allows it to shape his perspectives, his decisions, his very presence as a Starfleet commander and the Bajoran Emissary.
Like earlier Trek characters of colour, Sisko will not hesitate to wear a kufi or other African-inspired “ethnic” garb.
But, in contrast to earlier Black characters, Sisko is more than just his fashion sense; he is also often unapologetically (sometimes uncomfortably) Black. For example, in the TOS episode, “The Savage Curtain,” Uhura excuses being called a “charming Negress” because in the 23rd century people have learned not to “fear words.” Sisko, on the other hand, refuses to let racism (implicit or explicit) off the hook.
In the episode “Badda-Bing Badda-Bang,” Sisko initially refuses to participate in a holosuite heist with his fellow crewmates — even knowing that his refusal will disappoint his friends — because he is explicitly uncomfortable with the White-washing of 1960s racism and Jim Crow segregation:
Note, in particular, Sisko’s use of the word “our people,” which for perhaps the first time in Trek history is NOT a reference to all of humanity.
(Incidentally, Sisko’s earlier concerns only serve to make this later scene all the more epic.)
The close integration of Sisko’s race with his overall identity forces viewers to confront what that Blackness means for both him (as a character) as well as for historical and contemporary race relations. Sisko reveres Negro League era baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, and in the episode “Take Me Out to the Holosuite,” Sisko’s struggles to prove that the sporting abilities of his non-Vulcan crew are equal to those of Vulcans is reminiscent of his heroes’ struggle to integrate the sport of baseball in the 1940s.
In the episode “Far Beyond the Stars,” Sisko finds himself in a vision from the Prophets playing the role of Benny Russell, a mid-20th century science fiction writer telling the tale of a fictional Captain Benjamin Sisko. In the episode, Russell struggles against the racism of his editor, who simply refuses to publish his story (despite its obvious merit) because he feels that a “Negro” space station captain is unbelievable, eventually forcing Russell to resign from the magazine. Upon waking from this dream, Sisko resolves to remain on DS9 and “fight the good fight,” and it is up to the viewer to interpret whether this is a reference to Captain Sisko’s work as a Starfleet captain or as a fourth wall-breaking reference to Avery Brooks’ iconic position as one of television’s first examples of an explicitly racialized Black man in space.
In short, with Benjamin Sisko, race is not convenient and easily digested. It is not superficial or unassuming. It is not seasoning. Benjamin Sisko is not just a Starfleet man, he is a Black Starfleet man. He’s not just like everyone else, and we see how this both challenges and enriches the overall culture of DS9. Sisko’s self-identification as a racialized man is at times uncomfortable, but it also reinforces the notion that humans in the world of Star Trek are multi-faceted and varied; that humanity has not become a melting pot of homogenized, white-washed Terran culture and history.
This take on race in the Star Trek universe is as refreshing as it is, sadly, short-lived. Although characters of colour — Harry Kim, B’Elanna Torres, Hoshi Sato, and Travis Mayweather — remain evident in the two series that followed DS9’s run, writers returned to the pre-DS9 model of race relations in Star Trek: rarely do any of these latter characters explicitly address, confront, or challenge their race as humans of colour.
To me, it remains unclear how much of Sisko’s uniquely racialized identity was a conscientious effort by DS9 writers, and how much was inserted by actor Avery Brooks (more on this subject tomorrow by Shawn Smith in Part 3 of The Sisko Trilogy), but either way, no discussion of Captain Benjamin Sisko would be complete without acknowledging how his character fundamentally nuanced our understanding of racial identity in the 24th century, and by extension, our perspectives on race and racism in the 20th century and today.
Also, no discussion of The Sisko would be complete without this: