The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers

By Bridgett M. Davis

Little Brown and Company | 2019

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

Bridgett Davis

Upon reading Bridgett Davis’s The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers (Little Brown and Company (2019), I immediately thought of Louise Meriwether’s seminal and classic coming of age novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner (1970).  I pondered on the connections that would surface.

Did Davis and Meriwether, separated by nearly five decades, share a similar journey?  Did they both grow up in an urban economically depressed environment?  Were they subjected to sexual abuse and fragmented family relationships? In short, was Bridgett Davis’s memoir a version of Daddy Was a Number Runner circa 1960 and 1970?

Bridgett M. Davis, novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and professor of writing, pens a memoir that tells her story, as well as the story of her mother, Fannie Davis, a woman who used her knowledge of the numbers industry in Detroit during the 60s, 70s and 80s to run a successful business and to raise and provide a home for her five children.  A migrant from Nashville, Tennessee in 1958, Fannie Davis and her husband settled in Detroit, Michigan and carved a working-class life for their family.

The World According to Fannie Davis portrays the experiences and challenges faced by this Black woman involved in the numbers business and the obstacles and hurdles that those who migrated from small southern towns to urban cities such as Detroit, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC, faced. Thus, while immersing you in her family business, the world of numbers, Bridgett Davis presents the distressing effects of the urban housing crisis and gentrification, the economic consequences of the relocation and automation of the Detroit auto industry, and the impact of the civil rights movement and politics on Black families in Detroit.

Bridgett Davis is a novelist, journalist and screenwriter.  Her skills in these genres make for a memoir that is part literary, part journalistic and part cinematic.  Maya Angelou’s epigraph sets the stage for Davis’s rendering of how her mother survives and thrives in Detroit.  The epigraph reads:

My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style. 

Fannie Davis embodies the qualities of compassion, humor and style.  The prologue that follows this epigraph describes a childhood incident that epitomizes the pride and determination that Fannie Davis exhibits when questioned by an authority figure (Bridgett’s teacher) about her ability to provide Bridgett with an extensive array of shoes.

This teacher ‘s assumption that Fannie Davis cannot afford to buy her daughter this wide array of shoes stirs up the ever present reminder of racism and classism inherent in many majority white schools where Blacks are often the only person of color in their class. Fannie Davis has a rapid response to this situation, one which is symbolic of how this strong Black woman survives and thrives in the numbers business while maintaining the qualities highlighted in Maya Angelou’s epigraph.

Bridgett’s Detroit home is a center for those playing the numbers as well as a place where those who feel lost can find a warm safe haven.  Her mother, known and respected as a loving and giving person throughout the neighborhood, manages to keep her home open to many while using a variety of methods to collect bets, call in numbers and distribute winnings.

In telling the story of her mother, Bridgett presents her personal paradox.  She must keep and guard the secret of her mother’s number business.  She cannot share how this strong Black woman is able to provide for her family through an “illegal” and risky business enterprise. The irony of Bridgett’s dilemma is that despite this risky environment, she has not known what it means to want and not have.  She is not middle class but she has had most of the accoutrements and lifestyle of a relatively middle class life.

As she reflects on how her mother negotiated life on the boundaries of a legitimate business, it becomes clear that her mother maintained a secret life at great expense. She interacted with and was surrounded by people who had suspicions about her mother’s income, people who could have exposed the source of her family’s business.

The impetus for finally telling her mother’s story comes after Bridgett has a son who wants to know more about his grandmother who transitioned before he was born.  This question from her son, coupled with her own conflicts about her mother’s lifestyle, motivates Bridgett to defy her mother, to tell her story, and to expose the secret.  The telling of the story brings closure to both Bridgett and her son.

Because Bridgett’s mother is deceased, the content for this memoir is comprised of remembered experiences and stories emanating from interviews conducted with various family members and close friends.  This combined with Bridgett’s extensive research, family documents and photographs, and personal papers located in her mother’s trunk, enables her to reconstruct her childhood, teenage years and young adult life, and thus render a rich depiction of the world of Fannie Davis

Bridgett Davis’s research on the number business is extensive.  Readers come away with an understanding of why and how playing the numbers formed the fabric of dispensable as well as necessary income in many Black families throughout urban and Midwestern cities and towns across this country.

Whereas Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner provides a compelling coming of age story of a young girl in Harlem during the 1930s whose father was a number runner and who faces poverty and racism, Davis’s memoir presents an alternative coming of age story and perspective on the numbers business and the Black family.  We encounter a young girl growing up in a working class environment of Detroit during the 1960s and 1970s.  The young girl who emerges from this environment becomes a journalist, novelist, filmmaker, and college professor. Although the environments of both books differ, we bear witness to the legacy and tradition of the playing of numbers in the Black family and we gain a deep understanding of how much it is interwoven into the cultural fabric of Black family life.

Brenda M. Greene is Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature and Professor of English at Medgar Evers College, CUNY.

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