Badass Ladies of History: Jackie “Moms” Mabley

“Wouldn’t y’all vote for me to be president? That’s right, I can’t make it no worse! If Elizabeth can run England, I can run America. What has she got that I didn’t use to have and can’t get again, that’s what I want to know.” ““ Moms Mabley

Loretta Mary Aiken was born in the mid-1890s in North Carolina. Her father owned several businesses and was a volunteer fireman, while her mother cared for their 12 children and took in boarders for extra money. Before Loretta reached her teen years, her father was killed in an explosion, her mother was hit by a car and killed on Christmas day, and Loretta had been raped and impregnated by two adult men. Both babies were put up for adoption, and Loretta’s grandmother begged the 14 year old to flee North Carolina before her stepfather forced her to marry an older man. She joined the chitlin’ circuit as a singer and comedian, performing in black-owned clubs and theaters throughout the southern and eastern states. She met and became involved with fellow performer Jack Mabley in 1910. Loretta Aiken became known as Jackie Mabley, and she retained the name after their relationship ended.

Mabley made her way along the chitlin’ circuit to New York just as the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Jackie performed with artists such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington, was a frequent literary salon guest, and became romantically and professionally involved with Zora Neale Hurston. In 1931, Mabley and Hurston collaborated on several sketches for the Broadway production Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in Thirty-Seven Scenes, which was designed as an alternative to musicals with all-black casts that were produced by the white Broadway establishment for white audiences. Unfortunately, Fast and Furious received brutal reviews from white, mainstream newspapers. While The New York Times praised Mabley and Hurston’s sketches as “a measure of genuine entertainment” in an otherwise negative review, the Brooklyn Eagle could muster only “these Negroes do not perspire nearly so much as most of those who have come before.” The production closed within the week.

Mabley appeared in one Fast and Furious sketch, which led her to other acting roles. The most notable of these was Marcella in The Emperor Jones, a Paul Robeson film about a prisoner on a chain gang who escapes to the Caribbean and becomes dictator of an island. She also won a supporting role in Swinging the Dream, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with an all-black cast and a jazz score. After several years of acting both on stage and in films shot in New York, she returned to comedy, becoming the first female comedian to perform at the Apollo Theater. It was during her time at the Apollo that Jackie Mabley – multi-faceted performer, author, and noted fashionista – became Moms, a shabbily dressed old woman who talked about sex, race, misogyny, and current events at a time when it was not at all safe for a woman of color to do so publically.

Moms became the Apollo Theater’s star attraction, earning Mabley a $10,000-per-week salary by the late 1950s. In 1962, Mabley was invited to perform as Moms at Carnegie Hall, which led to numerous television talk show and variety hour appearances:

Colored fellow down home died. Pulled up to the gate. St. Peter look at him, say, “What do you want?” “Hey, man, you know me. Hey, Jack, you know me. I’m old Sam Jones. Old Sam Jones, man, you know me. Used to be with the NAACP, you know, CORE and all that stuff, marches, remember me? Oh man, you know me.” He just broke down there, “You know me.” He looked in his book. “Sam Jones,” he say, “No, no, you ain’ there, no Sam Jones.” He said, “Oh yes I am; look there! I’m the cat that married that white girl on the capitol steps of Jackson, Mississippi.” He said, “How long ago has that been?” He said, “About five minutes ago.”

She also began producing comedy albums, more than twenty in all, beginning with On Stage: The Funniest Woman in the World in 1961. The albums gave her an opportunity to test material considered too risqué or politically charged for network television. Some even included musical performances, from a send-up of Frank Sinatra’s My Way entitled His Way to her legendary cover of Abraham, Martin, and John.

Politicians such as New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Lyndon Johnson courted Mabley in hopes that she would attract African American voters, and she was invited to the White House by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. She later incorporated the visits into her act, including jokes about being a spy and exchanging tips on attracting young men with Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the early 1970s, she returned to the stage, performing with jazz greats Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Unfortunately, she suffered a heart attack while filming her last movie, Amazing Grace, where she starred as an elderly widow who exposes corruption in Baltimore’s mayoral race. Production was delayed to give Mabley ample time to recuperate, but she died mere months after the premier of her first starring film role.

From 1987 to 2003, actress Clarice Taylor, best known for her role as Anna Huxtable on The Cosby Show, wrote, produced, and starred in a touring production of Moms, bringing the amazing story of the Harlem Renaissance artist who became the country’s funniest and most famous covert social critic into a new century.

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