I seen some cheesecake in the window. I went in there and said please, I’m crazy about cheesecake. Everybody stopped and looked right at me. I said, “I don’t wanna go to school with ya. I just wanna piece o’ cheesecake!”
To young me, Moms Mabley was a funny old lady whose voice was the soundtrack to random occasions: cleaning the kitchen, a road trip to Georgia, a lazy Saturday afternoon. I didn’t quite catch all of her jokes as a 90s kid. I didn’t know she was a pioneer, breaking ground for basically every woman after her who dared to be a stand up comedian. I didn’t know she was a lesbian. I didn’t know she was a survivor of sexual assault. And I definitely didn’t know that when she dropped the character of “Moms,” a lascivious elder in a frumpy dress, she was probably the most dapper woman for a hundred miles.
Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley was a comedian, known in her day as The Funniest Woman in the World. She was one of the Chitlin’ Circuit’s most successful acts. Moms started out doing vaudeville, moved into extended stand up routines, and eventually made rounds on television and movies. She came out as a lesbian in 1921, and stayed out until her death in 1975. And people dealt with it. She was the oldest person to ever have a US 40 Top Hit, for her cover of “Abraham, Martin, and Jon,” which she sang response to the assassinations that rocked the country in her old age. She played with gender. Reclaiming the Mammy stereotype that had been used to keep black women meek and quiet and asexual for so long, Moms allowed her moo-moo aesthetic and Madea vocals to let her audience get comfortable… and then turned the tables, layering on curse words and double entendres and clever condemnations of patriarchal bullshit. Moms didn’t give a single fuck.
You tell them that Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her dog a bone. I say that Mother Hubbard had her gin in the cupboard. Jack and Jill went up the hill after some water? I tell ’em water don’t run uphill. You tell ’em that Mary had a little lamb. I tell ’em… wasn’t the doctor surprised!
Moms Mabley’s words from 1969 sounded progressive to me in 1999. I certainly didn’t hear any other women talking about their love of whiskey, making people laugh at the absurdities of segregation and police brutality and domestic violence, or describing their desire to burn to ashes husbands whom they’d been forced to marry too young. Moms was born in 1894, yet when her voice came out of my carnation pink boombox, she always seemed to be speaking from the future. The music in my house was dominated by gospel, then Oldies, but somehow Moms made it into the mix. I sometimes wonder what she would think if she knew that little queer black girls, born over a century after her, were listening to her acts on cassette and doubling over in laughter in the back of Astro vans. She’d probably say “I like to see children live, cause I didn’t have an opportunity to live!”
Here’s to Moms.