In the universe of Star Trek, Uhura was the communications officer on the USS Enterprise and the USS Enterprise-A. She was played by actress Nichelle Nichols in the Original Series and in films one through six, and by Zoë Saldaña in the 2009 prequel film.
Uhura is of African Bantu descent, and is fluent in several languages, including Swahili. She is also noted for her singing ability, and gave impromptu singing performances in several episodes. Although Uhura was never given an official command role onscreen, she was a trusted senior officer on the Starship Enterprise, and frequently assumed temporary command of the ship when commanding officers were away or somehow incapacitated. She started out as a lieutenant, and by the end of the films, she had been promoted as high as commander. According to the Star Trek novels, she would later become an admiral and finally, chief of Starfleet intelligence.
Uhura's name was derived from the Swahili word uhuru, meaning "freedom", and was taken from the title of a book Nichelle Nichols was reading the day she auditioned, Black Uhuru. Uhura was the character's surname; her first name was never clearly established on screen, and fans and book authors came up with several possibilities over the years, but Nichelle Nichols has stated definitively that her character's full name is "Nyota Penda Uhura", nyota meaning "star" in Swahili and penda meaning "love." The name was apparently approved by Gene Roddenberry for the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and has been generally accepted as canon ever since.
Despite the ubiquitous mini-skirt and a role which might be seen as marginal by present-day standards, the role of Uhura as played by the African-American Nichelle Nichols was a major breakthrough at the time. Uhura was pretty much the first ever black main character on American television who was not a maid or domestic servant, and the kiss Nichols shared with William Shatner in the episode "Plato's Stepchildren", even though it was forced by mind-controlling aliens, was seen as a watershed moment and is remembered as the first interracial kiss on American TV.
As small as the part was initially, Nichols and Roddenberry had to fight hard to get her on the show at all. When NBC outright refused to let Nichols be a regular, claiming Deep South affiliates would be angered, Roddenberry hired her under the ruse of being a "day worker," but still included her in almost every episode. Nichols, at least initially, actually made more money than any of the other actors through this workaround, and it was kept secret from the other actors, but it was still a humiliating second-class status. Moreover, the network people made life hard for Nichols, constantly trying to pare down her screen time, purposefully dropping racist comments in her presence, and even withholding her fan mail from her.
This deplorable state of affairs led Nichols to make the decision to quit after the first season, but then she happened to meet the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. at an NAACP conference, and the famous civil rights leader told her he was a big fan and pleaded with her to stick with the show, praising the show for portraying "men and woman of all races going forth in peaceful exploration, living as equals" and declaring, "You have the first non-stereotypical role on television, male or female."
Nichols career and the character of Uhura, have been cited by numerous African American women as a source of personal inspiration. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel into space, cited Uhura as her main inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut, for example, and comedian Whoopi Goldberg would recall that when she first saw Uhura on television as a child, she went racing around the house telling her whole family, "I just saw a black woman on television, and she ain't no maid!"