Moms Mabley cicrca 1970. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images (photo from HBO)

When you think of a radical, it’s safe to assume you’re not envisioning a toothless cleaning woman who speaks in black Southern patois.

For Jackie “Moms” Mabley, that was precisely the point.

HBO recently aired “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” a documentary that examined the life and influence of the famed comedienne.

Much of the knowledge of Mabley’s early life is fuzzy, but legend has it that she experienced pain that wasn’t uncommon to black women and girls in the rural South in the early 1900s.

“You always hear that comics, the best of us, come from pain,” Arsenio Hall says in an interview with Goldberg. “Wasn’t Moms raped twice?”
Goldberg: “That’s the story. And put both children up for adoption.”
Hall: “If pain makes you funny, we definitely know why she was hilarious.”

Whether it was personal, or whether she was simply giving a voice to others, Mabley was touching on a very real and, too often shushed, aspect of black women’s lives when she told jokes about old men not having anything that interested her. It’s difficult to say whether Mabley’s jokes were a wink and a nudge at her own sexual orientation — Mabley was a lesbian — her past experiences with sexual assault, or both.

“People have said this was tied up with what happened to her in her youth,” Goldberg says in the documentary, which she directed and produced. “Nobody knows what happened. There are many, many stories. But she knew it worked. She knew there were a lot of people, particularly women, who had been in that position and I think it’s more her saying, ‘Hey, I know. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.’”

Goldberg later asserts that Mabley’s history is the history of black people in America, and she’s not wrong. For those of us with Southern roots, it’s the story of many of our grandmothers.

“I married too young,” quips Mabley, who grew up in rural North Carolina. “Fifteen years old. When I come along, your parents picked who you marry. And my daddy picked this old man. Old man. Older than dirt. My daddy liked him. My daddy should have married him.”

The marriage joke is part of Mabley’s act. She’s said to have run away from home when she was 14 years old, and her father died in an accident when she was eleven.

My own grandmother was married off at 16 to a man at least twice her age and had 10 children. They were sharecroppers and my grandfather was a preacher. According to McDonald family lore, he was so evil and so abusive, one of my aunts joked that everybody high-fived when he finally kicked the bucket.

“It’s more widespread than people typically think,”  said Dr. Sharon Harley, an associate professor of African American studies at the University of Maryland. “Often there is a veil of silence around sexual assaults and around black women’s sexuality because of this trope of the highly sexual, sexually promiscuous African American woman coming from slavery and the post-emancipation period.”

In the hopes of countering this Jezebel narrative, black women doubled down, refusing to discuss anything sexual and presenting themselves as sexually “pure,” silencing any conversation around rape in the process. It wouldn’t have been respectable. In that sense, any references in Mabley’s act to rape would have been far more outré than anything alluding to her homosexuality.

We’re used to hearing about respectability politics with regard to race — this idea that you must behave or dress or talk a certain way in order for your experiences to be perceived as valid, but it can be just as destructive when used against women in reference to their sexuality.

Respectability politics is dangerous because it erases stories that are important, stories that shape our view of history. The politics surrounding black’s women’s sexuality grew out a cauldron of racialized misogyny that we’ve finally started to unpack.

“Historians don’t begin to write about this in a significant way until the last 10 or 20 years,” Harley said. “I think in that genre, black women and issues about blacks have been talked about less frequently than say, slavery and the like, but that changes in the last 10 years because people don’t feel the same obligation to present a certain kind of image of black folk, particularly black women. This notion of black women and Jezebels, and what it would mean for the race to talk about these sort of things is less prevalent among young scholars and scholars who are part of the LGBT community … Now we realize, just as race matters and gender matters and class matters, sexuality matters.”

Through humor, Mabley gave us a path to cauterize wounds caused by sexual violence: “You know Moms don’t like old men. Anytime you see me with my arm around an old man, I’m holding him for the police.”

The comic might have been bruised, but she certainly wasn’t broken, and her act wasn’t defined by dirty old man bashing. Her career spanned more than 50 years. Mabley got her digs in at everyone, and she was a master of skewering respectability politics, both racial and sexual.

In her 1967 television debut, Mabley played a maid to a black bourgeoisie couple, the Gramercys, who were convinced their elevated economic status would allow them to bypass racism. The couple had moved into an integrated building, and Mr. Gramercy tried, unsuccessfully, to sneak a watermelon into the building.

“I’ll ice it and dice it for you,” Mabley said, enthusiastically launching into a rendition of “Watermelon Man.”

Horrified, Gramercy sank into his wife’s lap.

“Ohhh, Momsie,” he cried, “Now everyone will know we’re colooooooooooored!”