Bridgett M. Davis is a novelist, screenwriter and creative writing professor. One of the running themes of her book is how her mother’s work made Davis’s current life possible. What her mother did was illegal, of course, and steeped in secrecy. Davis includes wonderful details about growing up as the daughter of a numbers runner — the coins she and her siblings had to roll, the way her mother counted cash so fast her hands were a blur. She also remembers her mother kept two pistols: one in her pocketbook, the other in the linen closet, “underneath the eyelet-trimmed sheets, lace tablecloth and linen napkins.”
Davis lovingly describes a childhood full of creature comforts — a beautiful house, designer clothing, countless toys and books. But she juxtaposes nearly every detail of the good life with the slow decay of Detroit around her, the killing of a black community through aggressive policing, the spread of drug abuse and targeted neglect by the surrounding white communities and politicians.
Davis accomplishes this through archival research, interviews with family members and thumbnail sketches of America’s underground economies, the Great Migration, housing segregation and politics in the post-civil rights movement era. Especially exhilarating is her history of lotteries. All 13 original colonies ran them and used the proceeds to fund capital improvements. But by 1860, most states had become suspicious of lotteries and had outlawed them precisely because of the egalitarian nature of luck — a poor black person could win one. Denmark Vesey, Davis tells us, was one such example. He used his winnings from a 1799 lottery to buy his freedom; later he founded the African Methodist Church in Charleston and led a famous rebellion against slaveholders in 1822. Lotteries, then, had the potential to upend the systems the states ran on — no wonder they were outlawed for so long. (States did not begin to reintroduce legal lotteries until 1964.)
Davis’s book is accessible, her language plain and direct. She has a cleareyed understanding of what it means to be poor and what kind of opportunities money creates. At one point, she notes that a small family loan “gave my mother what poverty did not: time to think.”
“The World According to Fannie Davis” would make a thrilling film. That’s probably a testament to Davis’s screenwriting background. But the arc of her mother’s story may be too radical for most production companies: A black woman unapologetically engages in criminal activity and excels at it, making a better life for her family, no moralizing included.
Thrumming beneath every sentence is an important question: “Who gets to be lucky?” Our culture loves stories of the lucky criminal, the Mafioso who gets away with it all, but that person is usually a white man. We need more stories like Fannie’s — the triumph and good life of a lucky black woman in a deeply corrupt world.