I read this beautiful memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis, a few months ago for book club and am just now having some time (barely) to write down my thoughts about it. I have had a whole mess of thoughts about it and I will try to jot down as many as I can coherently (again, barely much time to do this) but, for both of our sake’s, here’s my TL,DR: Read this book.
The book opens with an incredible story centered around the narrator’s (Bridgett’s) robust shoe collection. This is Detroit in the 1960s and the narrator is a young Black girl with a white teacher who has a lot to say (in too few words) to her about the girl’s shoe collection. Enter Fannie Davis, the titular numbers-running mother. I don’t want to spoil what happens other than to say that the yellow shoes story itself does more to reveal what kind of mother (in short: amazing) Fannie Davis is than a handful of pages written by mere mortal writers has a right to do.
Initially, the story of the yellow shoes, which involved a school and a mom and a child being treated poorly by a person in a position of power, set me on edge. Surely, this would end in some disaster for everyone. The child would be embarrassed. Accusations would be thrown around. Neglect and failure would ensue. I don’t think it’s ruining it to say that my fears were unfounded. But what my thinking revealed is that I have become accustomed to the mother narrative, and especially one, perhaps, told from the point of view of a child, to be fraught and disasterous. I’ve read many essays and books and stories of parental failure. And while I think these stories are important, I also realized that I had been in a parent-child-success story dessert. I was thirsting for stories told from a child’s point of view showing a parent-child (and specifically a mother-child) relationship that was warm and loving and open. The World According to to Fannie Davis was that long, cool drink I didn’t know I’d been craving.
Through her personal story and details, Davis also gives us a birds-eye view of American history including the realities of redlining and discriminatory lending, “numbers” and how it birthed what we know as the lottery, and the rise of Detroit aka Motown aka Motor City. (This is the first book I’ve read in a while that could inspire a playlist of music that would be truly and definitively American.)
One of the most striking aspects of the conversation in our book club was the ways in which several members (myself included) had experiences with playing the numbers in other countries or in small American communities. The book (and our experiences) were tinged by whether the games we were playing were legal or not in each time and location and whether they were considered a “vice” or not. It was a stark illustration of the ways in which the laws can be arbitrarily written (and enforced) to essentially teach entire groups of people or generations that their cultural practices are morally corrupt. Because while it was clear that Fannie Davis was providing a service (or several services including her home being a social hub and the entertainment factor of the numbers which allowed for greater social interaction) to her community, it was under the shadow and fear that what she was doing was illegal and somehow, therefore, wrong. And Bridgett writes about this. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to think that a book about a mother who was running numbers out of her home would be potentially full of vice and guns and violence. But it wasn’t. But as readers, or at least I, as a reader, have been raised on this idea that this sort of gambling is illegal and therefore wrong and therefore must lead to other wrongs.
And it’s clear that these larger social and legal pressures have been absorbed by Bridgett. She writes about the struggle to write this story (at its heart a story of a mother who worked incredibly hard to raise her children, keep them clothed, and housed and educated and more) because of the shame around their family business being illegal.
It doesn’t take much to draw the comparisons around the law in America around what has become perceived as “vices” like marijuana use. In both cases — with the number becoming the lottery and with the gradual legalization of marijuana — the people who end up losing out are those to created and built up these cultural practices under the shadow of them being illegal.
I want to mention the medical disparities in this country highlighted by her story. At one point her father, who Bridgett Davis was very close to, was in the hospital. One of the nurses asked her why no one had been taking care of him. So here we have a family who has been continually under attack from redlining and disability and the stressors of factory work and on and on … and when they try to access health care, the nurse asks them why they didn’t take care of each other. That’s abuse.
Bridgett Davis quotes Toni Morrison to describe her mother and I’ll close with that because it’s a beautiful way to describe her mother and because I feel that this quote gets at the heart of the book. And while it’s Morrison’s words and not Davis’s, Davis’s narrative flow cleanly outward from Morrison’s.
“Black women seen able to combine the nest and the adventure… they are both safe harbor and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both.” I feel she was describing my mother. (P181.)
2 thoughts on “Book: The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridgett M. Davis”
My family, too, has a history in that business. My grandfather was both a gambler and a numbers runner, but his day job was in a factory in Boston. On his way home to Cambridge every day he would pick up newpapers left behind on the subway, so that he could get the data he used to pick the winners. My dad grew up without a lot of books around, but there were always newspapers to read, and he developed an interest in journalism that in turn shaped his whole career.
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Thank you for sharing this fantastic family history. It’s amazing to me how many personal histories of ordinary people have this similar thread of playing the numbers. And how much, as in your dad’s story, something seemingly small could impact someone’s life and future generations so profoundly. Thanks again!
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