USF Professor of sociology Joshua Gamson wins national Guggenheim Fellowship for scholastic research and artistic creation.
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, even playing Carnegie Hall, the life and times of Jackie
“Moms” Mabley has been almost entirely neglected by historians and
writers outside of standup comedy circles.
But, 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’s 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.
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 highest paid performers on the vaudeville “Chitlin’ Circuit,”
Mabley rode a counter-culture wave in the 1950s and 1960s by satirizing
presidents, and tackling issues of male sexual power, and racism.
saw all you white folks goin’ on the green light, so I thought the red
light was for us,” she was known to jest during one of her routines,
after relating to the audience that she’d been pulled over by police in
the Carolinas while driving her Cadillac.
Mabley, according to
Gamson, made her observations by taking on the persona of a randy,
tell-it-like-it-is, gravely-voiced granny in an oversized housecoat,
undercutting the mammy – or homely, and matronly African American woman
– stereotype common in the era.
“She was doing social-commentary
standup long before it became the defining feature of American comedic
performance – albeit with an integrationist flavor and buffered by her
harmless-old-lady character,” Gamson said.
Born in 1894, Mabley
recorded 25 comedic albums and achieved crossover success with white
audiences later in her career, appearing on “The Smothers Brothers
Comedy Hour” and “The Tonight Show.”
“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.