The Harlem Renaissance, which flourished during the 1920s, was a cultural, artistic, and political movement—many of whose participants were brilliant queer people of color. Everyday this week we’re honoring their contributions in honor of this vital movement’s centennial anniversary. Previously: Angelina Weld Grimké, Lesbian Poet Laureate
One of Moms Mabley’s most popular and longest running bits was her aversion to old men.
“There ain’t nothin’ an old man can do for me but bring me a message from a young one,” went one joke.
“Anytime you see me with my arms around an old man, I’m holding him for the police,” went another.
“I don’t want nothin’ old but some old money,” etc., etc., etc. But while the character of Moms Mabley was a cougar chasing after the likes of legendary band leader Cab Calloway, the woman behind the persona was openly gay who forged a prolific career that spanned the majority of the 20th century, often heralded in press and publicity materials as “the funniest woman in the world.”
Loretta Mary Aiken was born in 1894 in North Carolina, one of 16 children to James Aiken and Mary Smith. By the time she was 14, both of her parents had been killed, she had been raped twice, and she had given up her two resulting children for adoption. Facing a life that promised more suffering, and spurred on by her grandmother, Loretta May ran away to Cleveland, Ohio, and joined the famed Vaudeville duo, Butterbeans and Susie.
Adopting the name Jackie Mabley—a former, abusive boyfriend—Mabley began cultivating the “Moms” persona based on her grandmother, earning the maternal moniker for the way she doted on other comedians on the Chitlin Circuit of theaters that welcomed and catered to black audiences.
Mabley arrived in New York City around 1921, during the nascent stages of the Harlem Renaissance, and almost immediately hit it off.
“When Moms got to Harlem, wow, she performed in all of the great places that there were in Harlem—Connie’s Inn, Cotton Club,” Whoopi Goldberg says in her 2013 documentary, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley. “She was on the bill with Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, and they were very tight. She’d meet Zora Neale Hurston. They’d write a musical together.”
Indeed, Mabley and Hurston collaborated on the 1931 Broadway show Fast and Furious: A Colored Revue in 37 Scenes, with Mabley playing the lead role in its short run. This, however, just goes to show how free black creativity ran through the streets of Harlem in the ’20s and ’30s. Along with creativity, sexuality was also fluid.
According to some sources, Moms Mabley “came out” as a lesbian when she was 27, though her audiences were certainly kept in the dark. While she dressed as a simple, mother-like figure for her act, for her everyday life Mabley favored smart suiting—silk shirts, ties, and fedoras—as she donned in her film debut, 1933’s The Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson.
In Goldberg’s documentary, Norma Miller, a dancer known as the “Queen of Swing,” recounts sharing a dressing room with Moms—and her girlfriend—for two weeks, and how the comedian’s sexuality was an open secret that no one really seemed to question or care about.
“She was Moms on stage but she walked off that stage, she was ’Mr. Moms.’ And there was no question about it,” Miller says. “And had the greatest identity for two things. ’Cause onstage she was really Moms and she was always after the great Cab Calloway. But you never saw her with a young man. You saw her with a young girl.”
Miller continues, “She was the first complete—I don’t know, we never called Moms a ’homosexual.’ That word never fit her. We never called her ’gay.’ We called her ’Mr. Moms.'”
Mabley may have very well been bisexual, as she did have affairs with men and had four more children in addition to the ones she gave up for adoption as a teenager. Still, Goldberg attributes the nonchalance about Moms’ sexuality to the time period when it was “nobody’s business” and the way Moms was treated as the only woman in the male-dominated world of comedy.
“I think that she was a woman among men who was equal to those men and they treated her like a man,” Goldberg explains. “And I think that is what helped give her the longevity.”
Mabley continued to be a popular draw among African American audiences throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, but when she finally made her way onto television in the ’60s, she began to appeal to a newer, younger, and whiter audience. Truly, she had her greatest success as a comedian in her twilight years.
Wanda Sykes, who clearly owes a lot to Moms Mabley, recently stepped into her comfy house-shoes in the third season finale of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
How do you possibly improve The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? You add Wanda Sykes. pic.twitter.com/VymGHB5Cqf
— Prime Video (@PrimeVideo) December 26, 2019
In so many ways, it’s perfect that an out, black, stand-up comedian would honor the woman who paved the way for her, bridging the gaps between Vaudeville, the Harlem Renaissance, and today, and proving that jokes about old men never go out of style.