Bridgett M. Davis Explores a Family Secret: Her Mother’s Illegal Lottery
“The World According to Fannie Davis” is a love letter to her mother, but also a crash course in economics and Black history
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“I’m playing the numbers” is a phrase I heard from my elders many times in my childhood. It meant a quick run to the store for a scratch-off, or playing a combination of birthdays and lucky numbers in the hopes of striking it rich. Huddled on the living room floor or in the dining room over Hungry Man, dinners my family held out hope that this would be the day they’d taste Lady Luck. Needless to say, this didn’t happen for us, and the true ascendency and utilization of the lottery system, especially within Black communities, was lost on me. In reading Bridgett M. Davis’s new book — part memoir but mostly a biography of her mother Fannie Davis, who made her own luck by running a numbers business, a kind of illegal lottery, out of her Detroit home — I gained a clearer understanding of what the phrase really meant and how the lottery’s existence was embedded in the livelihood and welfare of Black lives especially.
The World According to Fannie Davis is Davis’s third book, the first nonfiction, and it’s a kind of love letter to her mother, recognizing the extraordinary woman that Fannie Davis was. Often Black women are pushed to do that much more to keep their families afloat and Fannie’s intrepidness, luck, and all-around good nature kept her and her family more than afloat but living a solid life post-Depression as they migrated and settled in Detroit. I was happy to talk to Davis about not only Fannie Davis but Fannie Davis, about the revelations that came in reflecting on her childhood and what her mother carried, as well as what stories we tend to hold in and why.
Jennifer Baker: I wanted to talk to you about this whole process. Was there any hesitation during the process? Were there thoughts of “Maybe I shouldn’t do this even though I have my aunt’s blessing”? Was there any kind of stumbling blocks that may have occurred before you brought Fannie’s story to the fold?
Bridgett M. Davis: I think my journey is a little unique in a couple ways. First, our secret was not traumatic. It was not a dark secret, but it had to be kept secret because what my mother was doing was illegal. So I think that was both the reason I didn’t feel I could tell anyone and also interestingly what made it complicated for me. I felt no shame around it, but felt I couldn’t tell it. The other thing that was unique for me was I waited decades until I simply couldn’t not tell. Until I simply couldn’t not not tell. I think I am suspecting that when it’s traumatic it really eats at people and there’s this great need to share because that’s part of releasing the shame. But for me it wasn’t that. I could suppress the desire much longer because it didn’t have any shameful attachment to it. But still, even still I did reach that point where I thought, “This is wrong. I’m being remiss in not telling.” Because now I’m acting like it’s shameful and it’s not.
When I finally reached a milestone age and my children were reaching a certain point in their lives I thought “They don’t know who their grandmother is.” So that’s what really lead me to talk to my aunt. And I don’t know what I would’ve done if she had said “don’t tell anyone.” I was fortunate that she instantly responded positively. She really said right away “Oh, you wanna tell Fannie’s story? Yeah you should tell. Because what she did was amazing and people should know.” And I said, oh my god, all these years I was worried about what my mom’s sister would think and in fact she had none of those issues around it. Because remember now my mother has been dead over two decades and it’s like telling would get us in trouble with the law. So, you know, the only issue was is this fair to her memory and legacy? And my aunt answered that.
JB: You’ve written two novels and come into this project with a respect for Fannie. As a reader, I know she’s a person but reading her as character in this space, it’s very interesting to see the way you navigate that. Throughout the book it is: let me tell you about the numbers, let me tell you about my mother, let me tell you about the environment and the world we’re living in right now. Because that’s so essential to bringing it all together.
BD: And I had that understanding before I had the actual research done, before I had any confidence that I could pull this off. I need to provide this story in a context. Some fortuitous things happened to help me tell it with that kind of context and also the more I learned about her story the more excited I got about those pivotal moments in her life story that dovetailed with these critical cultural moments. And that’s what has to happen with nonfiction for it to read as an engaging narrative. You know you can’t make up anything. I knew from novel writing that there are moments where you can adjust the plot to do what it needs to do. I didn’t have that on my side and I knew that going in, so I didn’t have the gumption of knowing the story going in. I knew I was going to find out that story as I found out more about her from the family and I as began to do the research around the stories I had heard all my life. I found it funny, I found that I love this form so much.
JB: Oh yeah?
BD: It’s crazy that I love this form so much. It’s crazy that I trained as a journalist and had never written a nonfiction book.
JB: But you needed that subject matter to want to write the long-form?
BD: Exactly. I needed something I cared enough about to want to apply it to a nonfiction book also. It was good that I got the novel writing desire or the novel writing bug out of my system. And, you know, I also spent the entire decade of the ‘90s writing screenplays, which a lot of people don’t know and that is amazing skill set also. It’s dramatic writing and it’s really like a coupling of fiction and nonfiction. And so to me, the way I spent years and years learning my craft in each of those genres totally prepared me for this moment when I could draw on my journalistic skills to tell this story.
JB: When you’re talking about telling the story, getting the research, recounting the perspectives then with the realizations now and the material available to you. Was there consistent reawakenings of your childhood or re-examination of your childhood?
BD: It was shocking. It was shocking more than once. First, for me to have had this great 10th birthday party, I’m so excited. It was fabulous. It was huge. My whole class was invited. We were in the new house and so it was just a celebration of so much, you know, that stayed and resonated with me. I did not know that two weeks before J. Edgar Hoover had made it his business to wipe out the numbers in Detroit, and had orchestrated a huge FBI lead bust on the number runners. And confiscated millions of dollars in the process. Or at least claimed to have stopped that business worth multi-millions of dollars. Two weeks before my party. And I never knew it until I started doing the research. One moment you’re like “Wait a minute, let me check this date again.” I’m like what? Now I respected my mother on another level. I just couldn’t believe that she pulled that off with such seeming calm when of course she knew people who had been busted.
Another one is our family home. I did not know, literally until I read an article, I read that seminal article that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “The Case for Reparations.” He was talking about people buying houses on contract in Chicago and they were really shady deals. Basically you got to buy a home, but you had none of the benefits of homeownership. It was like renting really except you had invested your life savings with it. And it wasn’t involving a bank, it was just the seller. And people got ripped off. It was a business to rip people off. I knew my mother had gotten her home through a land contract with the seller. I always knew that story, so you see how I knew a story my whole life but then I didn’t understand it because she never told me. I didn’t know she couldn’t get a house any other way. I didn’t know laws were keeping Black folks from qualifying for mortgages because the U.S. government would not secure loans for Black folks in certain communities. Basically, if a Black person lived in that community at all then it was not going to be insured. Those loans, those home mortgages would not be backed by the federal government, so realtors didn’t loan, banks didn’t loan, sellers didn’t consider those homes for Black folks, etc. So how did Black people buy homes? Through these shady contract deals. That was another moment that just exploded my head.
JB: And you relay in the book these kind of revelations, but at no point did you ever see any kind of crack in the armor that your mother kind of —
BD: I say no, but I also remember she had headaches. She had to spend whole days resting sometimes. I know she was sometimes in a bad mood. We used to say “Oh, Momma’s feeling a little evil today.” Those were the things I saw and then with distance and maturity and context, I now know those were cracks. But she didn’t say —
JB: You mean she didn’t say what was happening?
BD: Right, she didn’t say “This is what’s happening” or “This is rough” or anything like that.
JB: I think about the Black woman’s burden. Especially when you have kids. I feel like I saw that a lot in my childhood with the women. Them gathering alone while the kids were off doing whatever not worrying about the election or Reagan’s oppressive tactics or drug usage. But you write very thoroughly about the crack downs then the Lotto. But this kind of essence we’re not seeing — and this can also be of course children are kind of, “well does it involve me? No? Then whatever.” But I think when there’s a hardship children do feel that. You can feel that kind of tension at any age.
BD: Yes, absolutely.
JB: And the fact that you were imbued with love and Fannie was all “don’t worry about it” and taking calculated risks. The way you wrote about it was something I connected to as the job is to take care of everybody.
BD: It’s a lot of work for a Black woman to take on and it’s not even unique. I’m sure a lot of people could say there’s no moment when my mother thought, “Why should I have to do all this?” I don’t think she ever asked that question. I remember she used to say “A child should never have to worry about the light bill.” And that was her way of saying she knew too many stories of kids who were also engaged in the process. Of “oh we gotta keep the lights on” and “oh we gotta pay that bill.” And she was like, “I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s fair to a child.”
JB: We know the term “I’m gonna play the numbers this week.” But I didn’t realize the impact it had on so many people’s lives who relied on it as a source of income, as sustenance. So it kind of showcases again the issues within the community. “Once we find something, boom, the feds need to come and get it.”
BD: Yup, put their hands in it.
JB: “Wait, we can legalize this!”
BD: And I didn’t know either. I lived it, the sort of tactile experience of being around the numbers but I had no idea of the history. I didn’t know lotteries used to be legal in this country. I didn’t know that the thirteen colonies used lotteries for their capital projects. I didn’t know that Denmark Vesey bought his freedom in part to a lottery ticket, to the lottery that he won. So, from the beginning it’s rooted in American history and in African American history because the first time the state decided to make lotteries illegal it has a lot to do with the fact that they didn’t want former slaves gaining any financial advantage.
JB: And then that translates to the Lotto? It’s a similar process.
BD: They were like “we’re going to make it illegal” for decades and “we’re gonna castigate Black folks for playing any kind of lottery or certainly illegal lottery.” But now, fast forward to mid-20th century “Oh my god there’s so much money.” So we’re gonna take this over and we’re gonna change the perception of what it means to be a lottery player. Clean it up. And at the same time usurp this business — this multi-million dollar business that Black folks found and created and sustained. We’re gonna take that from them. Because guess what, White suburbanites, this way you don’t have to pay any taxes. You don’t have to pay for your public schools taxes. We’ll use lottery money for that. So see how it was never untied from racist policies?
JB: And you wanted to make sure to clarify that in this book, too? It’s the story of Fannie, which is a very intriguing and engaging story. Add the elements of “now I recognize what we had to rely on in this form of income.” One necessitates the other.
BD: I always thought it was the quintessential American story. And I always thought it was about the “American Dream.” Once it was really time to sit down and really tell I always knew I wanted to do more than just tell her story. I feel like I heard her in my ear. My mother was not vain and glorious, as they say. I felt like I heard her say “Do it right and help people understand the ways in which I was just making a way out of no way.” That’s the voice I was hearing.
JB: How would you like readers to see Fannie?
BD: I would love for people to see her as a woman who worked hard and also thrived. And through it all gave freely. That whole idea that the more you give the more you receive, you’ve got to believe that. I think that was the impression she left. She really enjoyed all three of those: She enjoyed working hard for herself. She enjoyed thriving. And she enjoyed giving.