because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Monday, June 4, 2012

Jackie “Moms” Mabley

Loretta Aiken had been raped and impregnated twice by the time she was fifteen. Her stepfather's solution was to marry her off to a much older man, who we can guess, was happy to help. But Loretta -- already an in-your-face woman -- wasn't having it. Instead, she ran off from her family home in North Carolina in 1912 to sing and entertain with a traveling minstrel show that was in Cleveland, Ohio, at the time.

Taking her stage name from an early boyfriend, who, she said, "took so much from her, she might as well take his name," she came out as a lesbian in 1924 while she was still in her twenties and, having done that, rapidly developed the nerve to start performing and recording the sexually-based comedy routines for which she became famous. Even though she was openly lesbian and wore androgynous clothing, Mabley eventually wound up with the nickname "Moms" because she mothered so many of the other young entertainers on the "Chitlin' Circuit," made up of African-American clubs that regularly hosted Black vaudeville shows.

So popular that she earned $10,000 per week while performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the height of her career, she eventually became accepted by a wider White audience due to her appearances on television and was still performing in her late seventies. Switching from her earlier more mannish costumes to appear without her teeth in a house dress and floppy hat, "Moms" Mabley would crack jokes about her interest in young men and then tackle topics most comedians were still afraid of, including sex and racism. In one of her later routines, Mabley said, "Ol' men say, 'Times ain't like they used ta be.' I say, 'I'm damned glad of it!'" What she wasn't saying, but we know, is that in-your-face women like her are the reason times have changed.

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