Sociologist Wins Guggenheim to Research “Moms” Mabley

In SPITE OF BEING BILLED AS “The Funniest Woman in the World” in her heyday and rising to become one of America’s most recognized entertainers, Jackie “Moms” Mabley has been almost entirely neglected by historians and writers outside of standup comedy circles.

Jackie MableYBut, as the recent winner of a national Guggenheim Fellowship—created to support scholastic research and artistic creation—USF Professor of sociology Joshua Gamson intends to correct that by writing the first biography of Mabley. Gamson, who will take a semester or two away from USF to interview people who knew Mabley, said she was one of America’s first female standup comedians, an early pioneer of social satire, and one of the most successful African American performers of her time.

“My plan is to revive Moms Mabley: to research her story extensively and to tell it as fully and beautifully as I can,” said Gamson, whose most recent book, "The Fabulous Sylvester," received rave reviews and won the 2006 Israel Fishman Book Award for nonfiction. The book is a biography of disco singer Sylvester James.

Born in 1894, Mabley was among the highest paid performers on the vaudeville “Chitlin’ Circuit,” and rode a counter-culture wave in the 1950s and 1960s by satirizing presidents and tackling issues of male sexual power and racism.

“Doing justice to the life of Moms Mabley will clearly not just involve uncovering the details of her private life, which involves family feuds, rapes, and racial conflicts, but bringing to life the larger cultural environments that made her and in which she made herself,” including the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement, Gamson said.