Joe Biden’s Interracial Kiss

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the 2020 Presidential Election, made history on Tuesday by picking Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) to be his running mate.  Senator Harris is the first woman of color to hold a spot on a national party ticket; and the Biden Campaign is sending a clear signal that it intends to unite the traditional and progressive wings of the Democratic Party, while simultaneously swinging a symbolic sledgehammer at entrenched institutional racism and sexism.

The Biden-Harris team will throw a much-needed bolt of electricity into a presidential campaign that, like everything else in our current reality, has been severed from its customary moorings and launched into the uncharted  Bay of WTF.  With any luck, an overwhelmed and pandemic-fatigued American public will start to pay attention to the candidates and the issues and – GASP – actually vote in November.

As I reflect upon the Biden-Harris pairing, I am forced to wonder if the former Vice President and his team are cognizant of the enormous debt they owe to the real progressive force in modern American society: Star Trek.  I know what you are thinking: the man behind the Negro curtain has finally flipped his greying afro!  While there may be reasons aplenty to believe this, the above statement is not among them.  In the words of the Declaration of Independence, “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Among the several achievements of the original Star Trek series (1966-1969), is the distinction of featuring the first interracial kiss on network television.  The episode, Plato’s Stepchildren (Season 3, Episode 10), aired on 22 November 1968.  That year saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, widespread unrest in major American cities, and sustained protest against both racial inequality and the war in Vietnam.  Indeed, it seemed to many at the time that the American Experiment begun in the latter decades of the eighteenth century was about to collapse in flames and frenzy.  And to this roiling cauldron the creative forces behind Star Trek added one final ingredient: a kiss between native Iowan Captain James T. Kirk, the veritable symbol of White male power, and his chief Communications Officer, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, a Black woman from the “United States of Africa.”

The Kirk-Uhura embrace has been poked, prodded, and dissected by fans and scholars for more than fifty years.  Thus, there is no need for me to do more here than to mention a few major points.  We know that Star Trek’s producers were at least somewhat worried that the episode might cause the loss of viewership in Southern states or even force the cancellation of the series.  We also know that the kiss was not a “voluntary” act because alien beings with psychokinetic powers forced Kirk and Uhura to act against their will.  And finally, the incident could be “dismissed” because it occurred three centuries in the future, far removed from the racial strife that characterized America in the late 1960s.  Contrary to the dire predictions of some, the roughly ninety-second scene did not tip America into the abyss.  It did, however, plant a seed that would slowly take root in the soil of the American psyche: a diverse society that relied upon talent, equal opportunity, and character would eventually overcome one built upon a racial caste system.

Frankly, the thing that to this day bothers me the most about “Plato’s Stepchildren” is not the kiss itself, but the fact that Uhura is portrayed as being afraid of what was happening to her – and that her fear could only be dispelled by her focussing on the strength embodied by a White man, Captain Kirk.  As someone who was raised by two strong, capable, and determined Black women, my mother and grandmother, the idea of a Black woman fearing the circumstances confronting her and having to rely upon a White man for reassurance is even more alien to me than Captain Kirk’s Vulcan First Officer, Mr. Spock.  It pains me to admit this, but even Star Trek can sometimes fall short of our expectations.

Now Senator Harris, like Lieutenant Uhura five decades ago (or three hundred years from now – take your pick), also finds herself in an uncomfortable embrace with a powerful White man.  But unlike Uhura, Harris shows no sign whatsoever of being afraid of what lies ahead.  Indeed, her passion, unique experience, and gravitas are exactly what Biden and the Democrats need to guide Starship America to fulfill its destiny and “boldly go where no [one] has gone before.”

Lieutenant Uhura would be proud. 

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for bringing both intellectualism and levity to the conversation about Biden’s VP pick. Let’s go Biden/Harris 2020! Better days to come! Sooner rather than light years away!


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