My non-fiction book of the month for February was The World According to Fannie Davis, written by Spelmanite and beautiful Black woman, Bridgett M. Davis. The author came to D.C. in January to discuss her book and do a signing, and I was lucky enough to attend. I didn’t grow up with “the numbers,” but just hearing the way that the audience connected with the world that Davis described was almost as good as reading the book.
Davis writes about her life growing up with her mother, Fannie Davis, who dreamed of a better life and made that life happen . . . by becoming a numbers runner in Detroit. I will say that growing up in a middle class family in the conservative south, there was a certain level of disdain expressed by many around me, including family members, towards gambling and playing the lottery. There is a consistent “look at the shiftless Black person wasting money on the lottery when they could be improving their lot in life” sort of attitude towards the simply act of even buying lottery tickets, let alone playing the “underground” numbers. But, reading Davis’ book really gave me a lot of insight into how the numbers developed and the sort of network they created in Black communities.
Even more, I’ve gained a lot of insight into the pathos of Black folks as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve fortunately shed some of the strict adherence to respectability politics with which I was raised. In a lot of Black communities, both historical and even today, we are fighting for our joy. Our happiness and pleasure is at fundamental odds with this racist ass system that was designed and premised on our suffering. Davis describes some of the machinations of this system so stirringly, as she recounts how her mother “bought” their Detroit home on contract, and lived in the possibility that she could lose the house at any time. Or, how her father was marginalized and discarded at his factory job, making the struggle to provide for his family one of impossible humiliation. Black folks couldn’t even get the basic aspects of the American Dream, shit, we barely got the American part of the American Dream, so of course the Dream part is what folks end up chasing. People can’t function with nothing to look forward to but endless debt, discrimination and underpayment in the workplace, police violence and excessive criminalization, undereducation, food insecurity, etc. If poor folks seek joy from the possibility of hitting a number, who the fuck am I to tell them that that behavior is backwards and pointless? If it gives someone hope and joy, it ain’t never pointless.
Anyway, Bridgett gives her readers the fundamentals of the Great Migration northwards to
freedom less oppression for Black folks, Black life in Detroit, numbers running in the 60s and 70s, family dynamics when your mama is the breadwinner, and life in general. I loved that Fannie broke so many rules of how women were supposed to operate during her time. Most especially, I loved that she didn’t sacrifice her life completely to her role as a mother and wife. I’m tired of reading all these goddamn tributes to the selfless mothers that never get shit for their sacrifices except decades of bad sex and a few Mother’s Day cards. Fannie didn’t have love in her first marriage, so she left it and got it in her second. Fannie wanted nice shit (I love that she was collecting diamonds and Hermès scarves like a bad b*tch), and so she bought it . . . for herself and her kids. Fannie gave, and she didn’t get everything that she ever wanted in life either, but she didn’t make herself into a martyr only to be praised in the afterlife. The fact that she lived so fully is the reason why a book about her life is so interesting.
The prose was succinct, and though I felt a few bits of the book were too self-centered, I do think that Davis did a good job of making the book about her mother moreso than about her mother in relation to herself. This book almost feels like a written version of the revelation period I experienced in my late twenties as I came to understand more and more that my parents were people and not just my parents. They made me, but they were people before there was me, and they have layers that I’d never seen, let alone contemplated. That knowledge will make you think back on some of the interactions you’re had with your parents with new eyes, as you realize that every bad mood, idiosyncrasy, outsized response, exaggerated fear, or harsh punishment wasn’t necessarily about you. Sometimes it was about who your parents were . . . and were still becoming. And that’s the world according to Khadijah Robinson.
Davis at her D.C. book signing