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Mabley, Moms (1897-1975)

Mabley, Moms (1897-1975)

When Jackie Mabley was growing up one child of many in a poor Southern family, her mother told her she would have to leave North Carolina in order to make something of herself. Mabley took her mother's advice to heart, overcoming great odds to become not only a widely recognized and successful stand-up comic, but also the unforgettable "Moms," an African-American archetype with too much common sense and sensuality to take herself too seriously. Dressed in her flamboyant signature outfit of Hawaiian shirt over a housedress with bright socks, floppy slippers, and a hat she crocheted herself, Moms Mabley called her audience her "children." She entertained them with raunchy jokes and devilish playfulness, punctuating her act with bulging eyes and a toothless leer. In an entertainment industry where African-American women continue to receive little recognition, Moms Mabley's 60-year career stands as a role model.

Born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, the details of Mabley's youth are vague, but it seems clear she was born into a large, poor family. Early in her life she sought a way out; her father was killed when she was a child and Mabley herself had been raped twice before she left home at the age of thirteen to join the traveling performers of a minstrel show. She spent her teenage years singing, dancing, and doing sketch comedy along the "chitlin' circuit," the black-owned clubs and performance halls that offered work to black entertainers. Though a product of segregation, the black clubs were for the most part safe and comfortable places for both black audiences and performers. While traveling with the show, Loretta became involved with fellow performer Jack Mabley. Though they never married, she began to use the name Jackie Mabley, saying, "He took a lot off me, the least I could do was take his name."

With the arrival of the 1920s and the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, Mabley found her way to New York where she performed her act in such famous venues as the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom, sharing the bill with the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Later she would incorporate her friendships with these famous performers into her act, hinting broadly at her affairs.

By the 1930s, the Depression slowed the entertainment business, and Mabley made ends meet by working at church socials and movie houses. In 1931 she collaborated with renowned Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, writing and performing a Broadway play called, Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in Thirty-Seven Scenes. By 1939 Mabley began to appear regularly at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where over the next 35 years she would perform more than any other entertainer. Here she continued to develop her comic act—the salty old lady with the mobile face and gravelly voice. It was at the Apollo that she acquired the nickname "Moms" from her fellow performers who appreciated her nurturing sympathy. During her years of performing at the Apollo, Mabley often saw famous white comics in the audience and accused them of stealing her material.

Though Mabley's act may seem stereotypical to some, it was really quite a clever show business ploy. While attractive young women, particularly black women, could show little in the way of intelligence or sexuality without condemnation, "Moms" was safe—a laughable figure of fun. From behind the shabby clothes and mobile toothless grin, Mabley could offer sharp-witted insights and social commentary that would have been unacceptable from a more serious source. Beloved by African-American audiences, Mabley's whole persona was an "in" joke among blacks, and she did not hesitate to focus her scathing humor on whites and their ill treatment of other races. She also demonstrated glimmers of an early feminism with her jokes about old men and their illusions of authority. One of her trademark jokes was, "Ain't nothing an old man can do for me, but bring me a message from a young man."

It was this sly satirical edge along with the emergence of the Civil Rights movement that brought Mabley her second surge of fame in the rebellious 1960's. On The Ed Sullivan Show and the controversial Smothers Brothers Show, Moms Mabley brought her bawdy humor to white audiences for the first time. Over the course of her lengthy career, she also appeared in several movies, from small parts in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, to a starring role in Amazing Grace. The prolific Mabley also made over 25 popular comedy albums and was invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy. Perhaps one of Mabley's most touching performances is her hoarsely emotional recording of the song "Abraham, Martin, and John" about the deaths of the great Civil Rights leaders.

Though she had four children and five grandchildren, Mabley never married and she lived most of her life as a lesbian. Although she was not "out" in the modern sense, certainly Moms Mabley did break taboos and challenge assumptions throughout her career with her character of an old woman, who was sexual, savvy, and irrepressible. The girl who survived childhood rape to carve out a successful career in the inhospitable world of show business grew up to be Moms, who described her television appearances by saying, "I looked at the world as my children."

Modern black comediennes pay tribute to Mabley as a foremother. In 1986 playwright Alice Childress wrote Moms: A Praise for a Black Comedienne, which was produced on Broadway in 1987. Respected comic and actress Whoopi Goldberg "does" Mabley as one of her comic characters, and the documentary I Be Done Been Was Is names Moms Mabley as an inspiration for the black female comics who followed her.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Harris, Trudier. "Moms Mabley: A Study in Humor, Role Playing, and the Violation of Taboo." Southern Review. Vol. 24, No. 4, December 1, 1988, 765.

Williams, Elsie A. The Humor of Jackie Moms Mabley: An African American Comedic Tradition. New York, Garland, 1995.

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