Who was Jackie "Moms" Mabley?

Liz Highleyman | February 12,2007

Jackie "Moms" Mabley

African-American comedian Jackie "Moms" Mabley – dubbed "the funniest woman in the world" – was known for her ribald humor about young men, but her personal relationships were often with women.

The great-granddaughter of a slave and one of 12 children, Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken in March 1894 (some historians say 1897) in Brevard, N.C. When she was 11, her father, a businessman and volunteer firefighter, was killed when his fire truck exploded. Not long thereafter, her mother died after she was hit by a mail truck one Christmas morning. By the time she turned 13, Mabley had been raped twice – first by an older black man and later by a white sheriff – which resulted in two pregnancies; the babies were put up for adoption.

In her early teens, Mabley moved to Cleveland, where she joined a minstrel show, beginning as a singer and dancer but soon turning to comedy. While traveling the vaudeville "chitlin circuit" performing for black audiences, she began a relationship with fellow entertainer Jack Mabley. To allay the embarrassment of one of her brothers about her stage career, she adopted Mabley's name as her own. She later earned the nickname "Moms" for the maternal role she took with younger performers.

In 1921, a well-known vaudeville couple, Butterbeans and Susie, saw Mabley's show in Texas and invited her to join them. She was soon performing at legendary Harlem venues including the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom, and, later, the Apollo Theater. During the Harlem Renaissance, Mabley was part of a circle of black vaudeville performers and jazz and blues musicians known or believed to have been gay, lesbian, or bisexual, including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey. Although she had relationships with women, Mabley was not publicly open about her sexuality.

Well before she became an old woman herself, Mabley developed her signature character, a ribald granny dressed in a housedress, slippers, and a floppy hat. Delivered in a characteristic raspy voice, her brand of humor tended toward social satire, often addressing poverty and racism. While she may have preferred women in her personal life, Mabley became known for her jokes about pursuing young men, coupled with her disdain for old ones. "There ain't nothing an old man can do for me except bring me a message from a young one," she famously quipped.

In her 60s Mabley broke through the color barrier and gained considerable mainstream success, likely because white audiences found her frumpy character nonthreatening despite her biting wit and edgy themes. She recorded some two dozen comedy albums and made numerous appearances on television variety shows. She continued working until the end of her life, starring in the film Amazing Grace (1974) the year before her death in White Plains, N.Y., on May 23, 1975.

Though surprisingly unknown to contemporary audiences, Mabley had a profound influence and served as a role model for countless comedians, especially African Americans and women. In the words of author Mel Watkins, Mabley's work "foreshadowed the shift to direct social commentary" that became a mainstay of comedy by the late 1950s, and "anticipated the assertive sexual humor unveiled by female stand-up comics in the eighties."

For further reading:

  • Gomez, Jewelle. 1993. Forty-Three Septembers (Firebrand).

  • Watkins, Mel. 1999. On the Real Side: A History of African-American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock (Lawrence Hill Books).
  • Williams, Elsie. 1991. "Moms Mabley and the Afro-American Comic Performance." In Women's Comic Visions, ed. June Sochen (Wayne State University Press).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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