The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers by Bridgett M. Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As I was reading the last pages of The World According to Fannie Davis, the palm of my right hand began to itch. I smiled. In Haitian culture, an itchy hand means that you’re getting money. It can also mean that you’re losing money, depending on the hand. I can never remember which, so I called my auntie-bestie. “It’s diffuhrent for diffuhrent people” she said in her Haitian lilt. I wilted for a quick second at the lack of a definitive answer, but sprang back up. She became excited on my behalf. “Oooh, who’s going to give you dat monay?”
She offered some suggestions. Tax refund? I already received it. Federal and state. A raise? We usually get them in April. Win the lotto? She knows I don’t play, but perhaps this was a sign, or a hunch as Davis calls them in her book. Once or twice a year, I play the lottery when there’s a huge jackpot. As my landlord says “you have to be in it to win it.”
A few pages before my hand started itching, author Bridgett M. Davis talk about the various three-digit number she plays in New York Daily Numbers lottery and the reasons behind their selection. Davis, like her mother and namesake of the book Fannie Davis, plays birthdays, former addresses and other digits of significance in her life. I started thinking about possible numbers I can play. My last license plate, anniversary of moving to New York, graduation date.
Calling The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers a memoir is an understatement. As is calling it a biography of Fannie Davis. It’s Bridgett Davis’ memoir, Fannie Davis’ bio, a daughter’s ode to her beloved mother, and historical text. “Writing about my mother without mentioning the Numbers would be fruitless. I know because I tried and it didn’t work. Mama and her Numbers are inextricably intertwined.” I learned so much about the roots and origin story about how the Detroit state lotteries came to be. Per usual, the government surmised that it was missing an opportunity to dig deeper into the pockets of citizens so they legalized statewide what was once the reason for police raids in the homes of people—mostly black—simply trying to make a living or make ends meet in Detroit. Numbers.
Davis explains three-digit betting known as Numbers. Even so, I’d be lying if I said I totally understood how wins and losses are calculated. Phrases like 500-1 make my eyes gloss over. Much like Geometry in high school and Probabilities & Stats in college, the logic behind it doesn’t click in my brain. I always say I’m a words person, not a number person.
Bridgett doesn’t only explain the history of Numbers. She mentions Motown, the car industry and the Great Migration to provide a fuller frame of reference for life in America, but Detroit specifically for blacks. These well-known events already set the connotation for the social and political climate of the 50s and 60e. The book opens with first-grader Bridgett dealing with her blue-eyed teacher’s judgement as she comments, “You sure do have a lot of shoes.” The story behind how and why Bridgett comes to have the pair of yellow patent leather shoes that are featured in the upper right corner of the book’s cover highlights how unapologetic Fannie was to provide her family with nice things as a result of the fruits of her labor.
Bridgett grew up watching her mother run Numbers her whole life. For over thirty years, Fannie supported her family of five children, two husbands and a grandson. She bought a house and several cars, had several credit cards in her own name, and owned name brand clothing, including a collection of Hermes scarves. Having a kind heart, she shared her good fortune with friends and family, buying them food and groceries when needed, and handling all expenses for group trips.
Being Fannie’s last child may be part of the reason the two had a strong bond, even though she was a daddy’s girl before her father passed away. Throughout the book, Bridgett maintains an almost childlike wonder about her mother, even as she quotes from her journal during tense times during her adolescence and during Fannie’s illness. Reading her feelings after her mother’s death is when I can most relate to Bridgett. “The loss of her moving image, like the loss of the sound of her voice (which I never recorded), still hurts” and the mentioning of the “jealousy of mothered friends,” which for me also stretched onto my large extended family.
The World According to Fannie Davis makes its debut more than twenty years after Fannie’s death. Grief never goes away, so it must have been bittersweet for Bridgett to interview her mother’s remaining friends and relatives, as well as go through her mother’s things, including a novel she spent decades writing longhand in different colors of ink. Fannie called it her roman a clef. Bridgett states “I felt bereft and deformed, as though I’d suffered an amputation of a limb I could still feel but couldn’t touch.” At the very least, her memories, her mother’s book and now her own can serve as a small substitute of having her mother around.