At a time when the mere sight of Petula Clark touching Harry Belafonte's arm held the potential to upset delicate sensibilities, the half-human, half-Vulcan character Mr. Spock embodied an identity rarely acknowledged, much less seen, on television: a mixed-race person.
Sure, the mixing of races was allegorical in Spock's case, as was the brilliantly subversive mode for social commentary on Star Trek. But that doesn't mean it didn't resonate.
In 1968 — the year Clark made contact with Belafonte, and the same year the Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren" caused much consternation for network executives who feared backlash against the interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura — a young girl wrote a letter to Spock, care of FaVE magazine. In the letter, she makes the connection between Spock's fictional identity and her own very real situation:
I know that you are half Vulcan and half human and you have suffered because of this. My mother is Negro and my father is white and I am told this makes me a half-breed. In some ways I am persecuted even more than the Negro. The Negroes don't like me because I don't look like them. The white kids don't like me because I don't exactly look like one of them either.
Nimoy wrote a long and thoughtful response that reads, in part:
Spock learned he could save himself from letting prejudice get him down. He could do this by really understanding himself and knowing his own value as a person. He found he was equal to anyone who might try to put him down — equal in his own unique way.
You can do this too, if you realize the difference between popularity and true greatness.
Spock certainly knew what "true greatness" was all about. You didn't have to be mixed-race to feel this kind of connection to Spock, though.
One night when I was in grade school, when I wasn't self-conscious yet about being one of only two Asians in my class, I was over at a white friend's house for dinner. As we sat in the dining room devouring Big Macs, my friend's dad started referring to me as an "alien," letting out a laugh each time.
I didn't know what he meant at the time, but I knew he was making fun of me. It wouldn't be long before the racist ostracism of junior high began, when I would feel like I might as well be from outer space, and sometimes wished I was.
Maybe that partly explains why — even with George Takei's character Mr. Sulu representing one of the very few Asian faces I would see on TV as a kid — I always identified more with Spock. Whereas Sulu and Uhura were, on some level, aboard the Enterprise to normalize the idea of a racially diverse crew, Spock was Otherness personified — and dignified. (It's worth nothing that some find his "hybrid vigor" problematic.)
As Code Switch's Gene Demby points out, Nimoy said he drew on his own Jewish background for the role: "Spock is an alien, wherever he is. ... And that alienation is something I learned in Boston. I knew what it meant to be a member of a minority — and in some cases, an outcast minority. So I understood that aspect of the character, and I think it was helpful in playing him."
In a year when Oscar winners have urged us to "stay different," even amid the film industry's glacial progress on diverse representation, the loss of Nimoy, and by extension Spock, feels particularly acute.
More than any other character, Mr. Spock is forced to confront his ancestry, and what it says about him, time and again. His actions, his way of thinking, his way of being in the universe, is almost always tied to his heritage. And his status as a green-blooded "half-breed" freak foregrounds the difficult entanglements of race and culture.
In turn, Spock's difference forces his crewmates to be self-aware. It makes them examine their own assumptions, and the ways their perspective is derived from their own culture, rather than from some universal objective truth. They sometimes resent this, and even blame him for it. Spock is often singled out for merely being who he is — an experience that rings true for many people of color, pointed ears or no. It's little surprise that Spock has inspired mixed-race artists and writers.
Spock is, dare we say it, a fascinating confluence of cultural signifiers, intended and otherwise. (That's perhaps unsurprising for an actor who, as NPR's Neda Ulaby observes, was getting by in Hollywood playing "ethnic roles — Cherokees, Basques, Mexicans, Russians, Italian-Americans," before donning the blue Starfleet uniform that would make his career.) For instance, if you always thought Spock was Asian, or at least looked like he could be, you're not alone. The jet-black hair and steep slant of the brows, combined with personality traits that seem to align with model-minority tropes — cerebral, emotionless, skilled in unusual submission holds — lend an air of Asian-ness, for lack of a better word.
And like so many Asian sidekicks, Spock is indispensable to the team — and its white male leader, for his intelligence and resourcefulness, but never really considered captain material himself. Perhaps Star Trek's writers drew on some vague sense of Eastern culture as inspiration for Spock's fictional heritage. Even Spock's signature phrase, "live long and prosper," has a gnomic, almost fortune-cookie-like feel to it. (Ancient Vulcan secret, maybe?)
But like Nimoy himself, the finger-splaying gesture that accompanies this motto has a Jewish provenance, even if it's not immediately recognizable as such. The "Vulcan salute," as it's become known, involves forming the hand into the shape of the Hebrew letter shin — funny enough, the Hebrew letter with arguably the most Asian-sounding name. As Nimoy explained, the instantly recognizable hand signal comes from a Jewish benediction ceremony.
It is, quite literally, a blessing in disguise.
Writer Steve Haruch lives in Nashville. You can find him on Twitter @steveharuch.