Bridgett Davis: By the Numbers

This interview was conducted by Eisa Nefetari Ulen for Mosaic, and will be included in an upcoming lesson plan on Louise Meriwether’s Daddy was a Number Runner and Bridgett Davis’ The World According to Fannie Davis

Few residents of 20th century Black communities grew up without hearing about The Numbers. While 21st century America gets giddy every time the Mega Millions or the Powerball Jackpot soars into the hundred millions (or, as was the record-breaking case in January 2016, cracks a billion), African Americans are traditionally well-versed in The Numbers, the side-hustle of many a striving, struggling Black family. The Numbers ran through communities of color throughout most of the 20th century and offered opportunities for folk to “hit” and thereby pay past-due bills, make desperately needed purchases of clothing and household items, or, if they really hit it big, move into a better neighborhood, with better schools, and better opportunities for upward mobility for their children.

This is exactly what happened to Bridgett Davis, whose mother, Fannie, worked as a bookie in Detroit during the Motown Era. Fannie provided her family with a lovely home, a well-stocked refrigerator, and closets full of beautiful clothes because she effectively managed her own complex business enterprise. Fannie was such a good businesswoman that she always had money left over to feed and help support extended family and close friends. Though her mother gave her every reason to be proud of her entrepreneurial skills, Davis could never respond truthfully when anyone outside their inner circle asked what her mother did for a living. Prior to co-optation by the state in the form of government-run, televised lotteries, The Numbers was against the law. Forced underground by politicians and police, Fannie raised her children to keep their mouths shut, and Davis honored the culture of silence around her mother’s occupation until years after Fannie passed away.

Cultural permission for Davis to write her memoir came from Louise Meriwether, who authored the now classic Daddy Was a Number Runner. Meriwether’s novel, set in Harlem during the Great Depression, belongs in the Black female literary canon partly because of its interrogation of those system controllers, like corrupt police, who knock African Americans down and then blame them for being so low. While Meriwether exposes the hypocrisy of officers who hassle and arrest Black Number Runners just to garner higher kickbacks from white mobsters like Dutch Schultz, the central focus of Meriwether’s work is Francie, a 12-year old girl coming-of-age in a community where childhood innocence is threatened by the very adult realities of an entire community struggling to survive. Unlike Davis’ real-life middle-class experience, the fictional Francie lives in an apartment building infested with bedbugs, rats, and predators who offer Francie and her girl-friends a nickel to see, and sometimes touch, their pubescent bodies. Francie’s neighborhood can be ugly, but it is also beautiful, with intimate networks of support created by neighbors who, despite their own poverty, always have a cup of sugar to share. In both Davis’ memoir and Meriwether’s novel, African Americans fortify one another in meaningful and affirming ways, edifying a culture of community-focus that insists we lift as we climb and leave no one behind.

The Numbers was a gamble, but with every hit, it was also a way to get ahead in the task of lifting and climbing. Davis documents the community support offered by African American leadership in The Detroit Numbers, and in Meriwether’s novel neighbors reap the benefits when Francie’s family plays a Number that hits. That The Numbers was a technically illegal enterprise did not prevent Black folk from celebrating their winnings in the open.

Playing The Numbers was also an open, and often communal, experience. An entire culture grew around The Numbers, with women consulting friends with dream books, men proudly playing birthdates and times of birth as they passed out cigars on their way home from visiting their wives in the maternity ward, even children looking for signs to tell their parents what numbers to play.

These lesson plans provide ample opportunities to celebrate Black Numbers culture as students interrogate the ambiguous illegality of The Numbers and examine the coming-of-age aspects of both books. These lesson plans also give students the opportunity to explore the impact of public schools and schoolteachers on Francie and Davis, the family legacies that scaffold characters, the difficult realities facing girls (including sexual assault and rape in Meriwether’s novel), and the generosity of dispossessed people in the communities of color that each writer celebrates in her work. Mosaic secured an interview with Bridgett Davis, which appears below and should be read by students along with both books.

Mosaic:    As a child, you had to keep the truth of your mother’s work a secret.  How hard was that for you, especially when you were in middle school, high school, and college?

Davis: Because I never knew any other way of life growing up, keeping our family’s secret was not hard. It was my normal. And because the secret had no shame associated with it — even as a child I could see that the Numbers were a well-enjoyed, legitimate business in our community that just happened to be illegal — there was no bursting desire to tell it. Plus, my mom said, “No good can come from running your mouth,” and I believed her.

Mosaic:   How old were you when you first read Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Number Runner?

Davis: I was 10 years old when I first read Daddy Was a Number Runner, the year it was published.

Mosaic:   Do you remember what your first, gut, heart-felt reaction was to Meriwether’s book?

Davis: My gut reaction to the book was astonishment. I could not believe someone like me existed in a book! I’d never in my young life read a book with a young black girl as the main character. And to top it off, Francie’s father was a number runner, and so was my Mama! That moment affected my entire life, because once I read the book –and reread it throughout my childhood and young adulthood — I KNEW I wanted to be a writer, and I knew I wanted to tell stories about family dynamics, and I knew I wanted to make young black girls and women be at the center of those stories.

Mosaic:  Did you read the book for school and, if so, were you able to talk about your personal connection to Meriwether’s novel in class?

Davis: My mother placed a copy of the book on a brand-new book shelf in my bedroom, so I just came home one day and found it, and devoured it. I soon discussed the book at length with my older sister Dianne, but I did not talk about it outside our family for many years — not until I wrote passionately in a college essay about how that novel affected my life.

Mosaic:   Once you became an adult and moved away from Detroit, your mother was no longer living under the cloak of fear that kept your family silent about her work. Why didn’t you talk more about Number running with your adult friends in New York City?

Davis: My mother ran Numbers until her death, so it remained a secret for as long as she was alive, which included my early years in New York. I couldn’t and wouldn’t talk about her vocation while she was still running her business, and after she died I had no desire to reveal her/our secret. And to be clear, my mother didn’t literally live under a “cloak of fear”; she was operating a technically illegal business, so she was forced to keep it secret. That’s why we didn’t tell anyone; but really, who talks about their parents’ livelihoods with their adult friends? I don’t know what your mom did/does for a living and I’ve known you for twenty years. My point is that there was no burning desire to “reveal” her secret; plus I was hard-wired like many black folks not to put our business “in the street.”

Mosaic:  When did you first start to talk about your mother’s work to people outside your own family?

Davis: Growing up, I always knew my mother was rare and unique, that running her own business so well, gaining so many people’s respect, and creating a prosperous life for us was an extraordinary feat. But I only began to talk about my mom’s work to people outside my own family after she’d been dead for 16 years. At that point, I was the mother of two children and realized they didn’t know who their grandmother was, and that saddened me. Also, in my 40s by then, I understood more fully what my mother had accomplished on a cultural level, and I also understood that hers was an untold story that needed to be told. I thought of her migration tale from the South to the North as the fourth story in The Warmth of Other Suns, the one left out. I made it my mission to tell that story.

Mosaic:   How many years passed before you were finally able to go from talking about your mother’s story, to writing your mother’s story?

Davis: I only began talking about my mom’s story to others in the context of writing about it. The two are tied. Once I decided to “come clean,” I knew that as a writer I wanted/needed to write about my mother. I always wanted to write about her, but it took a long while for me to understand that I could and I should. 

Mosaic:  What changed for you, as a daughter, mother, and artist that liberated your voice and allowed you to write a tribute to your mother?

Davis: The biggest change for me was becoming a mother and wanting my children to know who their grandmother had been, the tradition out of which they came, and the legacy they were a part of. Distance helps too because it provides perspective. As a mother myself, and as a mother of a daughter, I felt I had the right perspective finally on what it meant to be my mother’s daughter. Also, after writing screenplays and novels, I felt I’d reached a point in honing my craft as a writer where I could do justice to my mom’s story. 

Mosaic:  Did you revisit Meriwether’s book during this shift? If so, did her novel affect you differently when you reread it?

Davis: I did revisit Meriwether’s book once I began the early efforts to work on my memoir. It affected me both the same way — renewed love for being able to recognize the language and rituals associated with the Numbers — but also in a new way. I related more to the adults in the book, whereas before my entire connection was to Francie and her love for her daddy. I also came to understand that what I cherished most about this novel was the fact that Francie was given an interior life. We got inside Francie’s head. That interiority was and still is radical storytelling.

Mosaic:  Were there other books – or films, plays, or exhibits – that gave you the personal or cultural permission you needed to break your family’s silence and tell your mother’s tale?

Davis: Again, to stress this point, our silence was necessitated upon the need to make sure our mom didn’t get arrested for her technically illegal work. The lottery was taken over by the state of Michigan in 1972, so for many years it was clear that one version of this business was sanctioned by the state, and another version– the black one — was not. So the business itself clearly wasn’t illegitimate; state officials simply wanted it all to themselves. 

So, once I decided it was time to tell the world what she’d accomplished — and that’s how I have always thought of my mom’s line of work, as an accomplishment — I gave myself permission. And then my Aunt Florence, my mom’s sister, sanctioned that decision. That was all I needed.

But a few key cultural touchstones helped inspire me along the way: Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns of course; Hoodlum, the 1997 film directed by Bill Duke that depicts Harlem’s numbers-racket heyday; Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s play and later the film version of Lackawanna Blues, which centers on a black woman running a boarding house as she anchors a black community in a blue-collar town; The Book of Numbers, an unsung novel by Robert Dean Pharr about men in Richmond who create a numbers game in a small southern town; Toni Morrison’s words in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft Of Memoir, when she says, “I must trust my own recollection. I must also depend on the recollections of others. Thus memory weighs heavily in what I write, in how I begin and in what I find significant.” And an exhibit of the artist Mickalene Thomas’ Origin of the Universe, inspired me as it reminded me of my mother’s own style and way of moving through the world.

Mosaic:  How long did it take you to write your book?

Davis: I applied for my first research grant in 2008, was awarded it in 2009, and conducted my first interviews in 2010. The researching took several years, the writing of the proposal took a year, and the writing of the book itself took about a year and a half.

Mosaic: You and I are in the same writers group. How important has a community of other Black women writers been to you as a filmmaker, novelist, and now memoirist?

Davis: My community of black women writers has always been vital. I’ve been part of several writing groups across my writing life. For this book, you saw early pages, as did a couple other key writer friends. Tayari Jones in particular provided insightful feedback on how I might structure certain parts of the story.

Mosaic: When did you first meet Louise Meriwether, and what was that experience like?

Davis: I met Louise Meriwether in 2014 at a Feminist Press gala; I’d just published a novel with Feminist Press (Into the Go-Slow) and the press has kept Daddy Was a Number Runner in print for over 40 years. We were sharing an elevator and after we stepped out, my husband said, “Do you know who that was?” When he told me, I said, “Are you sure?!” And he said, “Yes, I read her name tag.” I ran up to her like a fan girl and expressed my gratitude for her having written the book that changed my life.

The following year, I was part of a program hosted by GIRLS WRITE NOW, and the organizers made sure she was in the audience — to my surprise. I was able to publicly thank her from the stage, a highlight of my life.

When she saw my original, first-edition copy of her book (of course I still have it!) she couldn’t believe it. She inscribed it with the words, “To Bridgett, My Daddy, Your Momma were Number Runners and we are soul sisters. Keep writing the Truth in your own beautiful way.

Mosaic: How often do you communicate with Meriwether? How would you describe your relationship with her?

Davis: Louise and I participated in a fantastic event together — a dialogue about her book — as part of the Harlem Book Fair in 2015, and we’ve been friends ever since. We have dinner together at Red Lobster once every season. She is 95 years old.

Mosaic: Meriwether’s book is a novel, while yours is memoir. Meriwether’s fictional Francie lives in the poverty of the Great Depression, while you grew up in middle class comfort during the Motown Era. Other than The Numbers, what do you see as the shared themes that emerge in both your books?

Davis: Both of us wrote about a place and a time –hers was 1930s Harlem and mine was 1960s Detroit. Both are stories about the ways that black folks had to “make a way out of no way.” Both are stories about young black girls navigating a hostile white world while enjoying the comforts of a close-knit black community.

Mosaic: You utilize other sources, including books, articles, and essays, to edify your memoir with objective facts about Black life in America. How important was it to you to place all the important themes in your book in a thoroughly researched historical context?

Davis: I’m a journalist by training, and I’m also a closet archivist. I love combing over original documents, dry pieces of paper that tell stories within them. I have always enjoyed research, even as a novelist. I love to anchor stories within an historical context. I like the process of digging through lived history to unearth untold narratives, unwritten stories of lives lived.

Mosaic: You also use your own personal diary entries throughout your memoir. How important was journal writing to you when you were a teenager?

Davis: Writing in a diary was like breathing for me. It just was what I did. I’ve kept a diary, and later journals my entire life. I have a trunk full that date back to my very first one begun in 1972. 

Mosaic: What would you say to middle school, high school, and even college age readers who have family secrets similar to your own?

Davis: I’m not sure how many people have a family secret specifically like mine — one that carried with it no shame in and of itself; but I do understand what it feels like to keep a secret in large part because you don’t want others to judge you or your loved ones. I’d say all secrets — even ones that are not dark — gather power the longer they are kept. And if the weight of that power becomes too much, then it’s time to tell. Telling has its own power. 

Mosaic: How should readers get in touch with you if they want to talk to you directly about The World According to Fannie Davis?

Davis: I’m easy to reach via my website:

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