The World According to Fannie Davis By Bridgett M. Davis
New York, NY; Little, Brown and Company, 2019, 320 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Lottery. Lotto. Jackpot. Mega Millions. About half of Americans see nothing but dollar signs in their eyes at the mere mention of these terms. Legal lotteries—the first modern enactment having occurred in New Hampshire in 1964—are not only widely accepted and factored into various states’ budgets, but they are also largely ubiquitous to the culture of the United States. You cannot pass through a supermarket, bodega, or now even an airport without seeing flashes of winning figures, jumpstarting a slew of fantasies of tag-popping shopping sprees, remote vacations, and the elimination of piles and piles of debt.
People can buy tickets and dream freely now, but it wasn’t long ago that players and vendors, many of whom were African Americans, had to remain in the shadows, the looming possibility of prosecution being a constant threat. The precursor to the Lottery as it is known today—the Numbers— was neither fancy nor legal but still drew enough revenue to do more than raise eyebrows.
The Motor City is the setting for Bridgett M. Davis’s The World According to Fannie Davis, a memoir recounting her life as the youngest daughter of the titular Fannie, the center of her world and a Numbers runner. The illicit nature of Fannie’s business forced a mandate of secrecy among her family, friends, and customers. Bridgett Davis was ready to keep silent about her family’s life outside the law until her mother Fannie’s death.
To Davis, always a writer, the only way to properly honor Fannie’s life and make peace with herself was to pen a memoir. Making the decision to disclose the details of her upbringing breaks a silence she had grown accustomed to maintaining. Disobeying the Davis doctrine in this way has given Bridgett Davis the freedom to shed any fear or internalized shame that she harbored growing up, and boast about the mother who supported her.
The World According to Fannie Davis is a time capsule of memories. Fannie takes center stage in the account, and rightfully so. Fannie’s customers, neighbors, and relatives (who visited the Davis home on both official and unofficial business) “moved in a planetary orbit around her, the sun.” The Davis matriarch was a source of strength, “blue collar bourgeoisie” middle-class status, and endless life lessons in the form of sharp commentary and living by example.
Fannie Davis was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father, Ezra Drumwright, was an entrepreneur and member of the limited, fortunate class of black landowners. (Davis writes that these black landowners weren't so much uncommon as kept back by a combination of racial terrorism and illegal loopholes used to strip their land away.) Fannie’s mother, Caroline, ran her husband’s books, and, together, they raised nine children. The relative prosperity that the Drumwright family experienced allowed an intuitive, witty, and beautiful Fannie to grow into a woman who imagined steering her own success.
After getting married to John T. Davis and having five kids—Deborah, Dianne, Anthony, Rita, and Bridgett—Fannie Davis and her family packed up and moved north to Detroit, nicknamed “Hitsville” for being home to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records. Add to that the attractive job prospects of the local General Motors factory, and Detroit fit the bill for a new beginning, a “shot at the American dream,” as the author puts it. Access to this dream became the Numbers.
The Numbers in Detroit were complicated, as we learn. After leaving the reader in suspense for a couple chapters, Bridgett lays it all out. Winning Numbers digits—three digits, which later turned into four and five—were tabulated based on the results of the Detroit and Pontiac horse races, a different formula used for each digit. Reading this explanatory passage a few times, okay, ten times, it’s still hard to feel like an expert. However, the point is not for the reader to grasp these calculations, but to know that Fannie understood them, and “often knew the winning number before most.”
Bridgett Davis’s colorful portrait of her mother and the life she created for herself and her family of seven abounds with truths and praise. Bridgett’s view is at once childlike—looking up to Fannie in adoration and looking around, trying to make sense of the world that filled her days—as well as knowing. The stress of running an underground business was something that Fannie didn’t wear on her sleeve, but the kids knew. The author writes at one point, “We all collectively and viscerally understood the need to protect Mama from any undue stress. This led to my siblings and me keeping certain upsetting news from her, because we all knew she ‘had enough on her.’ We kept secrets from Mama to protect her.”
The reader is transported to their childhood universe, a time of questioning some incoming stimuli and absorbing others without knowing it. Like many families with multiple children, each kid in the Davis household had a role to play, the boundary and fault lines both becoming apparent on the pages of the memoir. Bridgett was the youngest child and less exposed to the vicarious worrying of the first-born. She was admittedly spoiled, but ever eager to help her mother any way she could. The author relished recognition from Fannie, especially as it related to her Numbers. Other times, the stress of the Numbers business crept into Fannie as she came of age, often using her diary to vent,
...it scares me. This has been a tough year for Mama. Sometimes I wish we weren’t in Numbers cause this way, we don’t get a steady paycheck. But then I ask myself do you want to give up your luxuries along with the Numbers? And the answer is “no.”
The benefits of a comfortable home life were apparent, too—and not just for show. Fannie used her economic strength to convey deeply philosophical lessons to her children. Bridgett was only ten years old when her mother bought her and her sister Rita each a diamond ring—purchased at a pawn shop; good as any other place—and with these gifts said, “Now you don’t have to get excited just because a man gives you a ring. You can get excited over how he treats you.”
“Balancing being a mother, head of household, and community figure was a challenge she met with warrior fitness while living in a societal atmosphere that was constantly demeaning her blackness and her womanhood.”
The writer artfully dovetails recollections such as these with descriptions of sights and sounds that make her world leap off the page and come alive to the reader. While at the family home, affectionately referred to as “Broadstreet,” Davis remembers constant activity starting from elementary school. Entranced by Fannie and her ability to run her own business, Bridgett writes,
I still see Mama checking her business: First, she’d check the numbers taken via phone and recorded in her notebook, red pen in hand. If she found a hit, she’d circle it in red. Next, she went to the business that had been collected ‘out in the streets’, i.e. picked up from customers by a runner, usually a friend’s son or family friend she employed. Those bets were written on small slips of paper known as tickets. For those, she’d wet her finger, and go through each ticket one by one.
Bridgett Davis charts a timeline of well-researched and embedded black history as the backdrop to her life in Detroit. There are innocuous events, like a wedding at which Bridgett’s sister Dianne met Smokey Robinson, and one instance when Diana Ross herself waved at Bridgett. Other times, Davis is appropriately heavy with her recounting that the 1960s and 1970s could be hell for black people, even up north, once she left the safe walls of the Davis’s home.
Shopping trips were laced with racial profiling; Bridgett’s beloved father couldn’t keep steady work at GM while unemployment for young black men was at a rate of almost 30 percent; black people were relegated to the inner-city sections of Detroit, kept out of majority white neighborhoods, cross burnings and other intimidation tactics lit up a reign of terror. A different kind of numbers accompanies the following passage covering the Detroit riots of 1967:
No Numbers ran that entire week, as looting, burning and violence wore on for five days. A combined force of nearly 17,000 officers, National Guardsmen and federal troops were sent in and by the time the uprising was suppressed, as many as 155,000 rounds of ammunition had been fired by law enforcement; 43 people were dead—30 of them African-Americans, including a four-year-old girl named Tonya, victim to a 50-caliber bullet fired by the National Guard; more than 7,000 people were arrested on riot-related charges.
Fannie’s only desire in life was to keep her family and everyone who mattered safe, fed, and provided for. Balancing being a mother, head of household, and community figure was a challenge she met with warrior fitness while living in a societal atmosphere that was constantly demeaning her blackness and her womanhood. Meanwhile, her Numbers operation itself was precarious in that it was always at risk of discovery—a reminder made clear by the countless raids on surrounding gambling houses by local and federal law enforcement.
Fannie’s books remained safe, but the next biggest threat to her purse was an impending state lottery. As Bridgett Davis explains, the state saw tens of millions of dollars in annual Numbers revenue as an opportunity to evade raising taxes on its citizens. Meanwhile, the black Detroiters who were Numbers big-timers had been supporting their own communities—namely funding civil rights initiatives though the prominent Detroit chapter of the NAACP.
“Legislators surely reasoned the state should capture all that money wagered, rather than leave it in the coffers of two of society’s most despised groups,” Davis writes. As Michigan prepared to legalize a practice that would transfer much of Numbers wealth to the state budget, the demonization campaign of black gambling “criminals” used to discourage Fannie and other runners and players like her, was drowned out by the wild success of the state lottery. “Well we already know that when white folks want to do something bad enough, they can just create a law to get away with it,” Fannie lamented.
Fannie and her family weathered a fluctuating income, mixed with numerous changes to the family dynamic and back to back tragedies, which, coupled with the eventual death of Fannie, emotionally unhinged our narrator. Her grief is raw as she searches for some kind of glue to keep her life in order—a role that her mother used to play.
The World According to Fannie Davis ends as a sendoff, Bridgett’s dedication to her mother and a defense of the happiness and security she was granted as a child, despite the means. She makes a compelling case for “making a way out of no way,” a common mantra for black people; she humanizes the hustle. This book will be a thought-provoking and inspirational delight for anyone searching for understanding in a world designed for only some to succeed.
Shirley Ngozi Nwangwa is a New York City-based writer passionate about giving marginalized folks a space to be heard. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram @llovellin.