Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech for her 2011 National Book Award for Poetry deserves an honor all by itself. The award-winning poet is a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Kentucky and was being honored for her recent poetry collection, “Head Off & Split.” Presenter John Lithgow, who’s been to dozens, if not hundreds of awards ceremonies himself, called Finney’s acceptance speech “the best acceptance speech for anything that [I’ve] ever heard in [my] life.”
Shortly after her incredible acceptance speech, her book sold out across many bookstores including Amazon.com.
Out the four honorees at this year’s National Book Awards, three of them were women of color. Along with Finney was novelist Jesmyn Ward, who won the fiction award for “Salvage the Bones,” and Thanhha Lai, a Vietnamese author who won in the young adult category for “Inside Out & Back Again.” Stephen Greenblatt won the nonfiction award for “The Swerve.”
When Finney won her award she read a poem she prepared in anticipation of winner the award. Her acceptance speech, along with each one of her poems, draws from the history of slavery, she told the audience.
“Black people were the only people in the United States ever explicitly forbidden to become literate,” she told the audience. “I am now officially speechless.”
Watch her acceptance speech at the top of this page. Finney’s speech begins around the 4:30 minute mark.