Wow. Talk about the power of words. As host John Lithgow said when Nikky was finished, “That was the best acceptance speech for anything I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s also the loudest I’ve ever heard anyone cheer for an award for poetry.”
And it's enough to remind a poet like me of why I do what I do. And of the fact that the obstacles before me have been stacked for centuries. But that didn't stop folks from writing, even way back then. The legacy I'm following is a bold, courageous one.
You can watch Nikky Finney's speech here, starting at the 2:20 mark. Here's the transcript:
We begin with history.
The slave codes of South Carolina, 1739. A fine of $100 and 6 months in prison would be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read or write, and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature. The ones who longed to read and write but were forbidden, who lost hands and feet, were killed by laws written by men who believed they owned other men. Words devoted to quelling freedom, insurgency, imagination, all hope. What about the possibility of one day making a poem? The king’s mouth and the queen’s tongue, arranged to perfection on the most beautiful paper, sealed with wax and palmetto, tree sap, determined to control what can never be controlled – the will of the human heart to speak its own mind.
Tonight, these forbidden ones move around the room as they please, they sit at whatever table they want, wear camel-colored field hats and tomato-red kerchiefs. They are bold in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best, their cotton croaker sack shirts are black wash pot clean and irreverently not tucked in. Some even have come in white Victorian collars and bustiers. Some have just climbed out of the cold, wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together.
If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl poet self, so too would I call out theirs.
To: Parneshia Jones, Marianne Jankowski, Northwestern University Press. This moment has everything to do with how serious, how gorgeous you do what you do. A.J. Verdelle, editor partner in this language life, you taught me that repetition is holy, courage can be a daughter’s name, and two is stronger than one. Papa, chief opponent of the death penalty in South Carolina for fifty years, fifty-seven years married to the same Newberry girl, when I was a girl, you bought every incendiary dictionary, encyclopedia, and black history tome that ever knocked on our Oakland Avenue door. Mama, dear Mama, Newberry girl fifty-seven years married to the same Smithfield boy, you made Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays out of foil, lace, cardboard, papier-maché, insisting beauty into our deeply segregated, Southern days. Adrienne Rich, Bruce Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, simply to be in your finalist company is to brightly burn. National Book Foundation and National Book Award judges, there were special high school English teachers who would read and announce the highly anticipated annual report, even as it was stowed way down deep in some dusty corner of our tiny, Southern newspaper.
Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, great and best teacher of my life. You asked me on a Friday, 4 o’clock, 1977, I was nineteen and sitting on a Talladega College wall, dreaming about the only life I ever wanted, that of a poet. “Ms. Finney,” you said, “Do you really have time to sit there? Have you finished reading every book in the library?” Dr. Katie Cannon, what I heard you say once haunts every poem that I write. “Black people,” you said, “were the only people in the United States ever explicitly forbidden to become literate.”
I am now officially speechless.
-Nikky Finney, National Book Awards, November 16, 2011.
Watch Nikky Finney read "My Time Up With You" from her award-winning collection, and talk about the poem's inspiration. Gives me chills.