The author tells the story of her mother’s life in the numbers business in Detroit for 40-some years. Fannie and her husband were among the many black people who left Nashville, Tennessee and other Southern cities looking for a better life, in their case, in 1955. John T was not able to make enough money for the family, so Fannie ran numbers and did so successfully until her death in 1992.
The great strength of this book is the insight we get into Bridgett’s world. The picture she paints is of a child with a surprising feeling of privilege, surprising given that her family had all the built-in disadvantages of racism with the addition of an illegal enterprise in the home. The phone in their house rang all day long with Fannie’s customers calling in their numbers. Late in the day the anxiety of learning whether any of her customers hit big on a number consumed the household. Though Fannie was in danger of being wiped out by a big hit, she spent plenty of money, not only on herself and her family, but anyone in her orbit. Her apparent confidence is impressive, given that she was always in danger like any small business person, but also that her continued success depended on the discretion of everyone around her, including children. It should be noted that not all of Fannie’s children were so successful as Bridgett; heroin addiction and early death came to some of Bridgett’s siblings.
Because Fannie knew that with four young children and a husband with limited earning power, she had to make money. At the time the options open for most black women in Detroit were being a maid in white homes, cleaning offices, or factory work; Fannie knew the only way she’d “have more than what this country intended for her was to work for herself in a business she controlled that depended on a black clientele.” The numbers business was successful in black communities throughout the country. Publications were available to help you choose a winning number. One the author mentions that is still published today, “Lottery Dream Numbers Book” helps you turn your dreams into a number.
Luck was seen as an important part of Fannie’s success as a numbers players (with other bookies):
Her hunches were everything. The candles and incense and tip sheets were a means of reinforcing what numbers she already had a good feeling about. Ditto for numbers out in the world. Seeing a certain combination reinforced a hunch, provided a sign that yes, she should play that particular number on that particular day. It was important to respect your hunches, not ignore them or get distracted and fail to act on these gifts of intuition. Mama’s hunches were linked to, proof positive of, her good luck. People who are lucky have strong hunches and win.
Along with those gifts, she was a smart and careful business woman who made adjustments as conditions changed. When Michigan instituted the daily lottery, you might think the numbers business for people like Fannie would end. But Fannie provided a friendly connection for those who played the numbers. Having a daily winning lottery number announced on television every day at the same time meant she could use those numbers as the winners, rather than the complicated formula previously used. And when the lottery began offering four digit numbers which could result in bigger payouts, she used the Michigan lottery itself as insurance: when she had big liabilities, she bought lottery tickets for those numbers.
I don’t believe in “luck,” think playing the lottery is an indication of a lack of understanding of probability, and love my sister’s description of a small lottery win as “a joyless transaction.” Even starting with those views I found this book to be informative and I grew to admire and respect the community that Fannie was a part of.
Bridgett M. Davis, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, Little, Brown and Company, 2019, 320 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.