How Moms Mabley Paved The Way For Today's Tiffany Haddishes
Moms knew best; laughter is soul food.
March 03, 2020 at 12:34 am
Note: This article is part of Blavity's #MakingHistoryWhileBlack Black History Month series, where we highlight unsung historical Black figures whose personal stories are deserving of more prominence.
Before we electric slide out of Black History Month, let’s take the time to celebrate the legacy of a true trailblazer in entertainment — comedian Jackie "Moms" Mabley. The successful, resilient entertainer dominated in a predominantly male industry for nearly six decades.
Born as Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, Mabley has never been a stranger to tragedy or trauma. While still a child, her firefighter father was killed in an explosion. A few years later, her mother was killed by a truck, on Christmas day. In her teen years, Mabley was raped twice and had to give the resulting children up for adoption.
Transforming her pain into passion, Mabley left home to embark on a career in show business at age 14, viewing laughter as her opportunity and outlet. She eventually pursued standup comedy on the Chitlin’ Circuit, and rose to prominence as the first professional Black female comedian.
While developing her career on the circuit, Moms adopted the name "Mabley" after a brief love affair with fellow comedian Jack Mabley. The stage name caught on swiftly and eventually evolved into “Moms Mabley” because of the natural, maternal nature she exhibited toward fellow touring performers.
In the 1920s, Moms Mabley earned a residency at the famous Cotton Club. Soon, she was able to add theater and film to her resume, working with writer Zora Neale Hurston for the Broadway play, Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes, and playing the role of Marcella alongside Paul Robeson for the film The Emperor Jones. Similar to Hurston and Robeson, Moms Mabley would end up an icon in her own right.
Aside from breaking racial and gender barriers in entertainment, Moms Mabley made strides for the LGBTQ community. She did not promote her sexuality, but the beloved entertainer was regarded as a popular gay comedian, making her one of the first openly gay comedians. Nonetheless, her stage character carried the demeanor of an older, homely woman with a slick tongue and a yearning for younger men. This hilarious persona helped her become the first female comedian to ever appear at the Apollo Theater, performing there more than any other artist or entertainer of that time frame.
Mabley used her platform to comically address the climate of racial injustice and showed Black audiences that not only could we laugh through the pain, we could overcome it. She was a showstopper who many labeled "the funniest woman alive." Her acts were fresh and popular because she didn't just tell jokes, she told stories.
Though she performed in character, most times Moms Mabley felt like a kindred spirit to her audiences. When listening to some of her comedic bits, it's like listening to a raunchier older aunt tell tales about her life in the South. Moms Mabley had the influence to pack out auditoriums and make everyone leave smiling. She sang, told jokes, engaged the crowd and made all of her shows feel like home.
As successful as she eventually became, Moms Mabley still had to overcome barriers and discrimination. Even once televisions entered homes and presented a way for entertainers to reach more populations, it still took Mabley many years before she would crossover into mainstream entertainment. Mabley did earn the opportunity to appear on segments such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Ed Sullivan Show. She also scored a record deal with the famous Chess Records. After releasing a stream of widely commercial comedy albums, one of the most popular being 1963's I Got Somethin to Tell You, Moms Mabley became a high-charting comedian, and she has continued to remain among the top-listed comics of all-time.
Spotify | Moms Mabley
Moms Mabley passed away on May 23, 1975, at 80 years old. Her footwork undoubtedly helped build space for all women in comedy. She has single-handedly opened the door for the reception of animated, honest and astute Black female comedians like Leslie Jones and Tiffany Haddish. Whoopi Goldberg even commemorated Mabley's life, making her own directorial debut at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival with her documentary Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You. It's clear that Mabley left behind an impeccable legacy of laughter; may she never be forgotten.