This post provides information about the Black sources of what some people in the mainstream media are referring to as a new custom in which female celebrities and drag queens are called "mama" or "mother" by their fans (or "stans", i.e. serious [very committed] fans).
The content of this post is presented for cultural, folkloric, and sociological purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Special hat tip to the original poster and the commenters on a Reddit page on the use of this referent. Selected comments from that page are found below. That discussion thread motivated me to publish this post.
CONTEMPORARY USE OF THE REFERENT "MOM" - Katya & Other Drag Queens, Kesha, Lady Gaga, & Others
Selected Comments From http://www.reddit.com/r/rupaulsdragrace/comments/30p0ee/can_someone_explain_the_term_mom_in_relation_to/ "Can someone explain the term "mom" in relation to drag to me? [All comments are from March 29, 2015. These comments aren't all in consecutive order. Additional information may be included after some of these comments.]
submitted by sandingtime
"Where did it start originally? Was it with Katya? Or was a common term before Katya?
Because lately I've been seeing fans refer to and call other queens "mom" on Twitter and I swear I never saw this prior to S7.
Help a girl out with her drag terminology!"
"Katya" is a drag queen who is a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race season 7.
"She gives us life. It was not started with Katya. It is not drag terminology, it's moreso fandom terminology (especially with gay fans) :)"
Here's a definition for "[someone or something] gives us life" from http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Giving%20us%20life
"Giving us life
To give something or someone life means to give it or them energy, validity or significance.
"Girl, she is giving us LIFE with that outfit" or "What you just said was so shady, I will NOT give it life"
by MaiyLove November 23, 2013"
Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2015/03/what-someone-or-something-gives-me-life.html for a pancocojams post on the phrase "___ gives us life".
Nothing gay or drag.
Kesha explains (nice way to say you give them life):
Kesha is a White American award winning singer, songwriter, and fashion trendsetter. This video is entitled "Kesha on Fashion Week, New Music, and "Mom" - Yahoo Style Full Interview". From 4:14 to 4:51 in this interview Kesha discusses what she calls "a new term- Mom" that her fans call her. She says that her first reaction was "Do I look like a mom to you". But then after scrolling through comments (on her social media pages) she realized that "it's a nice way of saying that you give them life" So now I'm like "Children, you're mother will gift you with a new outfit."
"It started with Gaga and "mother monster"
Lady Gaga is a multi-award winning American singer & songwriter. Click http://ladygaga.wikia.com/wiki/Little_Monsters_(fan) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Gaga" for two articles about Lady Gaga's referring to her fans as "little monsters" and them referring to her as "Mother Monster". Those articles indicate that these referents began in 2009.
"Definitely did not start with Katya. But I'm surprised at how much it has been used by her fans. Maybe it's because of her constant stream of advice on Tumblr!"
"I sort of interpret it as a woman whom you respect; analogous to calling someone "queen." It's not drag specific and it didn't originate with Katya, however."
"It started in the Latino community and (I'm going to feel old) Too Wong Fu"
"To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is a 1995 American comedy film, starring Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo as three New York drag queens who embark on a road trip. The film's title refers to a totemic autographed photo of Julie Newmar that the trio carries with them on their journey."
I assume from the comment on this Reddit thread that the Latino drag queen in that movie was called "mama"."
ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF A MOTHER REFERENT USED FOR A DRAG QUEEN
"YAS MAMA RU! @RuPaul is giving me life in The Brady Bunch movie! You betta werk, mama! instagram.com/p/neymMnCtHv/ #CoverGirl
9:32 PM - 1 May 2014
RuPaul Charles is an African American actor, drag queen, model, author, recording artist, entrepreneur, producer & host of several television series, particularly RuPaul's Drag Race.
Information regarding the comment about The Brady Bunch movie:
In 1997 .... [RuPaul] has had guest appearances in many films, including both Brady Bunch movies, in which he played Jan's female guidance counselor
THE USE OF "MOTHER REFERENTS" IN AFRICAN AND AFRICAN AMERICAN CULTURE TO REFER TO FEMALES WHO AREN'T THAT PERSON'S MOTHER
The custom of using "mother referents" to refer to females who aren't your mother may be relatively new among White Americans, this custom isn't new to Africans and African Americans (and probably other people of the African Diaspora). Referents such as "mother", "mama", "ma", "mom[s]", and Queen mother" are used as referents of respect, love, and admiration for women who take on the roles associated with mothers (taking care of other people's children, serving as mentors and role models, giving advise and psychological support, taking on leadership role in your community etc.) Using mother referents for a respected, loved, and admired drag queen is a significant expansion of customs which are still be practiced in various Black cultures.
Here are some examples of the use of mother referents in African and African American cultures:
Schooling in Congo, July 7, 2010 [written by] erasingborders [Excerpt]
"Nearly everyone here is “Mama” or “Papa”. Children at an early age are acknowledged half wryly but affectionately in this way. Rev. Bonanga is not “Monsieur le President” as the head of the Disciples community; he is “Papa President”. And I have never heard Sandra Gourdet, the Global Ministries Africa Executive, referred to as anything but “Mama Sandra”. There is simply no more respectful honorific the culture can bestow than “Mama” and “Papa”...
If I understand correctly, erasingborders, the author of that post whose excerpt I quoted and hand others in that series, was a missionary worker in the DRC with the Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.
Monday, July 29, 2013 at 9:56 AM "13 Surprising
Things About Parenting in Congo" [Excerpt]
“For our Motherhood Around the World series, our third interview features Sarah ... and Jill .... two American friends who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa with their husbands and kids....
On "Mamas": Jill: Our kids are super lucky. They have two biological parents, but also Mama Vida, Mama NouNou, Mama Youyou, and Mamitsho to look out for them, wipe their crusty noses, say "Sorry, sorry" when they fall down, and laugh adoringly when they say something cute. These “mamas” are the Congolese women who help us care for our kids and our homes. Mama Vida is our nanny, who comes every weekday to take care of Loulou while we are at work. Mama NouNou cleans our house three times a week, but her passion is food, and we love it when she makes us a dish to try.
In Congo, all women are called "Mama So-and-So" out of respect, whether you’re a mother or not. I thought I would be uncomfortable sharing my mama title, but I’m not. It's a strange relationship—that of nanny and parent and child—but one that is less threatening and more loving than I expected. Now it’s hard to imagine raising children without so many mamas."...
"The Use Of "Mama" & "Papa" In The Congo To Refer To Non-Parents" for more information about this subject.
"The Church Of God in Christ (COGIC) is a Pentecostal Christian denomination with a predominantly African-American membership. The denomination reports having over five million members in the United States. The National Council of Churches ranks it as the largest Pentecostal denomination and the fifth largest Christian denomination in the U.S. Internationally, COGIC can be found in more than 60 nations. Its worldwide membership is estimated to be between six and eight million members and more than 15,000 congregations throughout the world...
Women in COGIC have been influential in the leadership and organization of the church since its inception. ...
On the local church level in addition to the office of missionary, COGIC developed and has maintained the position of the "church mother." Church mothers have historically served as the leader of the women's ministries in the local congregations. The designated church mother along with other "older and seasoned" women of the church provided the practical teaching of holiness in daily life and practice. Today however, many church mothers have been reserved to titular positions as many pastor's wives have assumed the role of leader of women's ministries in local congregations….
General Supervisors for the Department of Women
• Mother Lizzie Woods Robinson - First General Mother (1911–1945)
• Mother Lillian Brooks Coffey - Second General Supervisor and Founding President of the Women's International Convention (1946–1964)
• Mother Annie L. Bailey - Third General Supervisor (1964–1975)
• Mother Mattie McGlothen - Fourth General Supervisor (1975–1994)
• Mother Emma F. Crouch -Fifth General Supervisor (1994–1997)
• Mother Willie Mae Rivers - Sixth General Supervisor (1997–Present)"
Information About Akan Queen Mothers (Ghana)
..."A typical Akan chieftaincy institution in its administrative set up comprises of the Chief (Ohene at times referred to by special titles befitting his status like Odikuro, Omanhene or Asantehene), the Queen-mother, and the Sub-Chiefs (often referred to as members of the state council, elders, or kin-makers). The Queen-mother is described as the mother of the chief although most often she is his sister, or the sister of his maternal uncle or his niece. The relationship gives the Queen-mother an equal authority if not higher in the family throne or property. It is the responsibility of the Queen-mother to advise the chief. She has the freedom and traditional powers to scold the Chief and to deal with him as no one else can. The Queen-mother selects or nominates the candidate to fill a vacant stool. As the mother of the members of the royal lineage, she is regarded as the authority on the kinship relations of the lineage. She questions as to whether or not any candidate possesses a legitimate kin-right to the stool. The Queen-mother is in-charge of the women of the village, town, or traditional area and oversees their interests. She advises the Chief and is considered the custodian of our traditional values. Her position is such that she is a powerful figure in the community and exerts her influence in many subtle ways, little understood by foreigners and even the local men themselves in their domain. Her powers also reflect on the subtle powers of wives and women in general in the traditional power structure of the Akan people."
Information About Queen Mother Moore (African American)
"Queen Mother Moore (July 27, 1898 – May 2, 1997) was an African-American civil rights leader and a black nationalist who was friends with such civil rights leaders as Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Jesse Jackson. She was a figure in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and a founder of the Republic of New Afrika...
Taking the first of many trips to Africa in 1972, she was given the chieftaincy title "Queen Mother" by members of the Ashanti people in Ghana, an honorific which became her informal name in the United States."
Information About "Ma" Rainey
"Born Gertrude Pridgett in 1886 in Columbus, Ohio, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey began touring with vaudeville and traveling tent-shows as a teenager. In these early venues, Gertrude not only sang, but also performed in comedy skits and dance routines. It was her talent as a blues songstress, however, that increasingly earned the public’s attention. When Gertrude married William “Pa” Rainey in 1904, the young yet matronly figure became known as “Ma” (short for “Madame”) and together the couple was billed as the “Assassinators of the Blues.” The Assassinators traveled with a number of performance troupes, sometimes together and sometimes alone, until “Ma” Rainey stepped away from show business—and her marriage.
While the promise of marital bliss never called “Ma” Rainey back to the altar, she was called back to the open road; she returned to the clamor and excitement of the vaudevillian stage, earning enough of a reputation to secure recording contract with Paramount Records in 1923. In that same year, “Ma” Rainey published her first record: “Moonshine Blues.” Notably, rival recording artist Bessie Smith would cover the same song just one year later, but “Ma” Rainey would have the final say, re-recording “Moonshine Blues” as one of her signature pieces in 1927…
Early versions detailed how “Ma” Rainey, after hearing Bessie sing in Chattanooga, kidnapped the young songstress and forced her to travel in Rainey’s show. While the kidnapping story has proven to be a tall tale, less certain is her direct influence on Bessie, who was approximately eight years her junior. We do know that that “Ma” and Bessie toured together at least twice; but by 1913, Bessie Smith was a rising star on her own, distinctive, terms. While some of their fellow artists insisted that Rainey was no minor mentor, other accounts echo the reflections offered by Bessie’s sister-in-law: “Actually, Ma and Bessie got along fine, but Ma never taught Bessie how to sing. She was more like a mother to her.”
The truth is most likely somewhere in-between these disparate reflections, but the reference to “Ma” Rainey’s maternal attributes seems fairly consistent. By most accounts, “Ma” Rainey’s stage moniker was well-earned: Yes, she could be brash, bold, and outspoken, but many of her contemporaries also remembered her as being supportive, warm, and compassionate—a “Ma” figure in both visage and temperament. Although the name “Ma” Rainey would stick with her, she would acquire a number of stage names during her career: “The Paramount Wildcat;” “The Golden Necklace of the Blues;” and, most memorably, “The Mother of the Blues”—all of which were equally reflective of her talent and stage presence...
As Sandra Lieb, the principal “Ma” Rainey biographer, notes:
Ma Rainey’s life symbolizes the confrontation between the Black rural South and the changes wrought by industrialization, urban migration, and the development of modern mass communications. She represents a collision between the unchanging aphorisms of folk poetry and the nervous rhythms of modern life; she is both timeless and in time, both mythic and historical...[S]he serves as the prime link between country blues and Black show business, at once folk artist and star performer, both “Ma” and Madame Rainey.
Information About Jackie "Moms" Mabley
"Jackie "Moms" Mabley (March 19, 1894 – May 23, 1975), born Loretta Mary Aiken, was an American standup comedian. A veteran of the Chitlin' circuit of African-American vaudeville, she later appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
...She took her stage name, Jackie Mabley, from an early boyfriend, commenting to Ebony in a 1970s interview that he'd taken so much from her, it was the least she could do to take his name. Later she became known as "Moms" because she was indeed a "Mom" to many other comedians on the circuit in the 1950s and 1960s....
In summary, Black people have used mother referents as titles of respect, authority, love, and admiration for women who aren't a person's biological, foster, or adopted mother long before fans began to use those terms for Lady Gaga, Kesha, and other White celebrities. The use of "Mama" by fans as a referent for drag queens is an expansion of this Black tradition, although I'm not certain when that expansion began.
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