As stated before during Black History Month, I have a tendency to change my profile picture on a daily basis to one of the African Americans who I believe were influential not only on the African American community but the American community as a whole. These men and women are scientists, politicians, activists, industrialists, and educators. I normally do not select celebrities or athletes (with the exception of Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington) because their impact is usually superficial in nature and not lasting, but not today. Today, “I’m Charles Washburn”.
I had the honor of meeting Mr. Washburn a little over 10 years ago at my first Star Trek Vegas convention. He was sitting alone at his table while the attendees scurried around the other more notable celebrities. I stood there with my buddy Bill talking to James Darren (who was extremely nice and the complete essence of cool) when I asked Mr. Darren who was the gentlemen (referring to Mr. Washburn) sitting across the way. Mr. Darren placed a hand on my shoulder and gave me slight not like the father from a Christmas Story showing Ralphie the hidden present. At this point, I started to slowly walk over to this man who was greying and intensely reading something. I looked back at my buddy Bill but he was already “flirting” (successfully some would say) with another Star Trek cutie - but that’s a tale for another time.
As I approached his table, Mr. Washburn looked up from the book I was reading. I found myself not being able to make eye contact with him. I look down at his table and I saw this picture:
Yep, the man in front of me had worked on the original Star Trek series. Not only had he worked on the original series but he was the assistant director. And not only was he the assistant director, but he was the FIRST black assistant director, being also the first African American to apply to and graduate from the DGA (Director Guild of America).
Now I wasn’t a big fan of Kirk and Spock when my dad introduced the show to me when I was about 8. I was part of the “Star Wars” generation and watching Star Trek was just simply… bleh. The special effects were sad (in comparison to Lucas’s masterpiece), the acting subpar, the only saving grace was Nichelle Nichols and to be honest, that was only reason I would sit for an hour with my dad through this trying ordeal just so I could see Ms. Nichols. Yeah I know 8… don’t judge me. It wasn’t until 1993 when I first saw Deep Space Nine that I started to get it. Not the Star Trek thing, but science fiction… but as I stated, I was only starting to get it and then I met Mr. Washburn.
I remember stammering on about “Oh you were on the original series. That must have been cool.” Cool? Who the hell says cool to a man who clearly has had some influence on one of the largest aspects of pop-culture in my lifetime?”
He smiled as he saw me recognize my error as I cleared my throat. He extended his hand, “Charles Washburn.”
I extended mine, “Parker.”
His hands, creased with age and course but not rough from years of some sort of manual labor. His grip solid but not overpowering. But his nails, immaculate. Why did I look at his nails you ask? I’ve learned you can tell a lot about a person by their hands (and feet). Gnawed fingernails would tell me the man had a stressful life and didn’t know how to deal with it and potentially had an issue expressing himself verbally, enlarged knuckles and scarred backhand could be the result of fights or smashing his hand into something which would denote a temper… and the list goes on.
“So,” he asked, “is this your first convention?”
I replied that this was actually my second with the first being in Philadelphia a few years prior and I was amazed at how large this convention was in comparison.
“It amazes me how so many people… so many different people, have the same thing in common.” I said looking throughout one of the convention halls.
“Yeah,” he nodded, “that’s the secret of Star Trek and Mr. Roddenberry. It proved that we all may be different but we are all the same.”
“So, why do you think we have so little black people in lead roles or any other race for that matter in science fiction?” I asked feeling if anyone would know the answer this man would.
“Oh, I don’t know… things are changing.” he said looking across the room. ”Look at Avery.”
Those words, “look at Avery” resonated something Vaughn Armstrong asked me when I talked him after recognizing him from Saved By the Bell (yeah, my nerdom continues to grow… but in my defense, my addiction to that show is my sister’s fault.)
“Was is important for you to see Avery in that role (as Captain).” Vaughn had asked.
“Most definitely, it gave me the hope that not only was the African American male in the future, but we helped mold it and we are still significant without all the shoe shuffling, “N” word dropping, crotch grabbing, “Yo” slanging crap that modern media portrays.” I responded.
So there I sat next to a Hollywood icon… wrong choice of words, an influential African American in television who’s work (which was at times uncredited) was and is impacting to the point that he was dubbed “Charlie Star Trek”. A person who lived through the Civil Rights movement, while helping portray a galaxy where “Civil” rights were a non-discussion, because it was no longer a concern because everyone had them and everyone understood the concept of justice and equality.
As I stated before, so I sat there. We joked and laughed, he expressed his pride in Star Trek as he spoke with others that approached his table. We took a couple of pictures together and I took pictures of him with others. In the final moments of my visit with him as I grabbed Bill from the Star Trek hottie so we could see Patrick Stewart, I turned to Mr. Washburn and said, “Thank you”.
He nodded and smiled and gave the average “my pleasure.” I then stated as I extended my hand, “No, seriously… Thank you. Thank you for help bringing a future to me I can dream about and realize.”
He shook my hand utilizing the same grip, but he held it a little longer this time. I understood what that meant and what I was charged with.
Mr. Washburn died last year after his battle with kidney disease. There was BET memoriam, no NAACP honor, no SyFy special or Science dedication for this pioneer, but then again, maybe that’s the way he wanted it. His life… uncredited. =/\=