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Volume 35
Issue 05
 
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Jackie
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

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, at the urging of her grandmother, Mabley left home and moved to Cleveland, where she lived with a minister's family. Before long, 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, and the couple had a daughter. To allay the embarrassment of one of her brothers about her stage career, she adopted Mabley's name as her own. "He took a lot off me, so the least I could do was take his name," she said in a 1974 interview. She later earned the nickname "Moms" for the maternal role she took with younger performers.

Mabley began performing as a solo stand-up comedian, and is widely regarded as the first African-American woman to do so. 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 and the Savoy Ballroom, sharing the bill with jazz greats such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

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, Mabel Hampton, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey. Although she had relationships with women - and sometimes let slip innuendos about affairs with both women and men - Mabley was not publicly open about her sexuality.

As the Depression put a halt to the Roaring '20s, Mabley became one of the most sought-after black performers. In 1931, she co-wrote a Broadway play, Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes, with author Zora Neale Hurston. Starting in the late 1930s, Mabley began performing at the Apollo Theater; over two decades, she became the club's most frequently featured act, and at the height of her career she was earning $10,000 per week.

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 (inspired, she said, by her own grandmother). Delivered in a characteristic raspy voice, her brand of humor tended toward social satire, often addressing the hardships of 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 and their attempts to wield control over women. "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 - unlike most performers on the black circuit - 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. By this time an actual toothless old woman, Mabley performed at large venues such as the Chicago Playboy Club and Carnegie Hall, recorded some two dozen comedy albums (becoming Billboard's highest-ranking female comedian), and made numerous appearances on television variety shows hosted by the likes of Merv Griffin, Bill Cosby, and the Smothers Brothers. Mabley continued working until the end of her life, starring in the film Amazing Grace (1974) - in which she plays a fed-up elderly woman who becomes a community organizer and takes on Baltimore's political establishment - 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."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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