Award-show season may be upon us again, but there’s never going to be another first African American to win an Academy Award, and we can’t imagine a recipient matching Cuba Gooding Jr.’s level unself-conscious glee when he won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in Jerry Maguire. So at least a couple of these black award-show speeches are safe from getting bumped off the Top 5 of All Time list in 2012.
While the Academy Awards, Daytime Emmys, Essence Awards and the like honor the work of actors and artists, we all know the speeches themselves are meaningful performances in their own right. Some are poignant because they make history, others for their emotion, and others earn a place in our collective memory for the way they perfectly capture cultural moments. If there were a “best award-show speech” category for black celebs, these would be the five nominees:
5. En Vogue, R&B Single of the Year, “Hold On” (1991 Billboard Music Awards)
Was it a speech or a musical performance? Both, and that’s why it was unforgettable. You have to like the way the ladies of En Vogue dispensed with the whole “We’re so surprised! We don’t have a speech prepared” notion and flawlessly sang their acceptance in the style of their award-winning single, “Hold On.” Points for originality, capturing the spirit of the R&B of the early 1990s, and of course, great live vocals.
4. Debbie Allen (1992 Essence Awards)
In 1992, at the first televised Essence Awards, Allen was honored for her role in expanding artistic opportunities for all African Americans. Presenter Oprah Winfrey said it best when the multitalented Fame star stepped off the stage: “Now, that was an acceptance speech!” Allen, of course, is an actor, choreographer, dancer and producer, but after this show, she could have added “motivational speaker” to her résumé. She brought down the house with this closing line: “A child, an explorer of the yet-expanding universe … I am woman, I am black, I am beautiful, I am bold, I am confident, I am in my form human and mortal, yet in spirit, divine. Thank you.”