Book review: The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, by Bridgett M. Davis (Amazon / Book Depository)
Professor and novelist Bridgett M. Davis’s mother Fannie was a number runner. Even before she understood exactly what that was and meant, Davis understood she had to keep what her mother did a secret.
I talked about her less and less because of that guilt, and that saddened me, as I knew that my mother’s work had transformed our family’s lives, kept us going.
Before lotteries were legal and state-run, playing the numbers was a form of gambling that was not only popular but imbued with deep cultural significance. Starting in the 1950s, Davis’s mother built up her family’s lives thanks to her work in the numbers, and the author writes a heartfelt tribute to this strong woman. The World According to Fannie Davis brilliantly highlights her wit, boundless generosity, and admirable resilience, while simultaneously chronicling Detroit’s highs and lows and carving out their family’s place in the sociopolitical context.
It’s also laced with stories from Detroit’s Motown scene and how the music defined moments and memories in Davis’s life. The result is an atmospheric and evocative memoir that illuminates what Fannie Davis did with her life and how it affected all those around her. She was a steadying influence with seemingly boundless generosity. Davis shows what a contrast it was that this woman who put so much good into the world was technically doing something illegal (but the same number betting system would later be directly poached by the Michigan State Lottery). Although she repeatedly mentions the shame she felt in keeping quiet for so long about how her mother’s business, she makes the complicated nuances of “illegal gambling” felt.
Davis is a filmmaker too, and the book’s style includes thoughtfully-placed interview snippets from friends and family, reflecting back on Fannie and how their lives connected. She incorporates these into her narrative and it gives the book an almost-documentary feel. The style throughout felt unique in this way, and realistic – a portrait of a person and their world can be thorough even if a single source tells the story, but the many voices that go into creating this one make it feel even more authentic and fleshed-out.
A migrant to Detroit from the Deep South, Fannie made “a way out of no way” for her family, and through tenacious work gifted her children (and many others) with hard-to-come-by opportunities and support. Fannie learned the convoluted formulas for calculating the numbers based on horse races and built up a trusted customer base of players. She ran the Numbers for 34 years, riding out Detroit’s rough developments and raids of bigger gambling operations. After a lucky hit of her own, she was able to buy, albeit with the frustrating and potentially ruinous conditions imposed on black buyers, a dream house for her family.
This portion of the book, where Davis details the bureaucratic hoops her mother leapt through in order to be a homeowner, was phenomenally strong. The odds were stacked against Fannie, from the forced, trust-based reliance on cosigners to the seller himself, who imposed harsh conditions and could’ve pulled the rug out from under the family at any time. Fannie credits her luck, which she insisted her daughter shares, for the worst not coming to pass there. But she’s such a formidable woman that one gets the impression any of these people would have been foolish to try to cross her.
In 1972, Michigan’s constitution was amended and the 137-year ban on lotteries was lifted. It affected Fannie’s business eventually, but ever resilient and indefatigable, she adapted and persevered. Davis, in making this such a full-bodied exploration of the times and culture, highlights the differences from multiple angles, including that the Numbers had fed money back into black neighborhoods, shops, and the community at large, keeping cash circulating and improving conditions and economics. The Numbers have a long, meaningful tradition in African-American culture, Davis emphasizes, placing them in historical context with stories like that of former slave Denmark Vesey, who was able to buy his own freedom with a lottery win.
This attention to history, culture, economics, and events is extraordinary. So many memoirs gaze heavily inward, telling impressionistic stories and emotional recollections from strictly personal perspectives. Which is fine, but what a bonus when one is packed with readable statistics about the era and researched contextual topics peripheral to the family’s story, making it feel as much a sociological study as memoir.
The house, the financial stability, and the nice things that she was able to give her children extended into opportunity that Bridgett herself seized, graduating from Atlanta’s Spelman College and getting a master’s in journalism from Columbia University.
Many times, Mama said to us, “I’m doing this so you don’t have to.” I took that to heart. She also would often say, “Don’t thank me. Just take advantage of the opportunities I made possible, and that’ll be all the thanks I need.”
I loved Davis’s exploration of the superstitions connected with playing the numbers, and how these were employed and interpreted by her mother and her customers.
Charlatan preachers also used dream books. One dream book publisher was quoted in Dream-Singers as noting that he “had a run on Aero books back in ’72 or ’73 because there was a minister in Detroit who would have private readings for like twenty-five dollars.” Congregants would go into a chapel, only to find a coffin. Its lid would open and the minister would sit up, look at the person, “read” him or her based on his “visions,” then use the Genuine Aero Dream Book to give that person a number to play.
There are so many fascinating side stories that Davis smoothly weaves into the chronicle of her mother’s life. It has its bittersweet moments, as any honest and realistic life story will. Davis engenders such emotional investment in both her own story and her family’s that it’s hard to put down, and gut-wrenchingly affecting at times. The story behind the yellow shoes on the cover is simply wonderful.
The fact that Mama gave us an unapologetically good life by taking others’ bets on three-digit numbers, collecting their money when they didn’t win, paying their hits when they did, and profiting from the difference, is the secret I’ve carried with me throughout my life. I’ve come to see it as her triumphant Great Migration tale: Fannie Davis left Jim Crow Nashville for Detroit in the midfifties with an ailing husband and three small children, and figured out how to “make a way out of no way” by building a thriving lottery business that gave her a shot at the American dream.
It’s uplifting, eye-opening, atmospheric, and sometimes heart-rending. Although not without its dark moments, the story is ultimately celebratory and one that so needed told. I owe a big thanks to Kellan at 29chapters for putting it on my radar with her most anticipated releases in the first half of 2019 post. She has an eye for an excellent memoir and is this ever one.
The World According to Fannie Davis:
My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers
by Bridgett M. Davis
published January 29, 2019 by Little, Brown