Bridgett M. Davis says her mother was both “extraordinary and typical.” After reading her memoir The World According to Fannie Davis, you’ll see just how much that description fits.
Davis, a journalism professor and novelist (Shifting Through Neutral), makes her nonfiction debut with the life story of her mother; in the author’s rendering, it’s at once intimate, deeply loving, and politically fascinating. As the city of Detroit was put under economic siege, there was Fannie Davis, running a numbers game through the ’60s and ’70s, elevating her family to middle-class status and providing the foundation for lasting generational wealth. She lifted the community around her, too. It just so happened that her lottery-adjacent enterprise was illegal.
The story of Fannie Davis, as her daughter so thoroughly tells it, is the story of not just one woman, in one city, at one period in time; it is, in many ways, the story of black America, the resilience and solidarity of the marginalized. Bridgett M. Davis combines standard conventions of memoir with a larger cultural history, examining the role that the numbers played in communities like hers, what it meant when the Detroit lottery legitimized the business — usurping people like Fannie — and in turn why her mother, however complex and rule-bending, was a hero who ought to be celebrated, chasing the American dream like anybody else.
EW caught up with Davis to discuss her memoir, the process of writing it, and what she believes her mother’s story has to teach us about today. Read on below. The World According to Davis publishes Tuesday and is available for pre-order.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you know you wanted to write a book about your mother?
BRIDGETT M. DAVIS: It started to become a serious mission for me when I realized my son didn’t really realize who his grandmother was. He saw a picture of her on our little side table and he just said to me, “Who was she? What was she like?” I’d talked to him about that, but mostly what I was thinking was, “It’s so funny what a secret does.” I was so used to keeping that secret about her from friends and people in my life that I’d actually not been in the habit of talking about her to my own children. It opened the floodgates, as they say. I realized this thing I’d been feeling was really me wanting to finally tell her story. That was actually 10 years ago, that I committed to it in a real way.
You combine a biography of her with a deep foray into her Detroit community and the time period overall. The argument, implicitly, is that her story reflects her place and time. Why is that?
I always understood it was going to be more about more than my mother — or, to say that better, about her inner world. Within a context. It felt to me that it’d be harder to understand her outside of that. She was fascinating, and I could’ve just written about her without adding that cultural context, but that’s not really who I am. I think of things in that way. It’s a way to write, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, for me: It’s how the story comes, and that’s what fascinates me about story. I’m sure my old background as a journalist plays a part in that. I’m a history buff. And I actually love research. So all of those things came to bear. But most importantly, I understood that she couldn’t have been who she was outside of the context of the life she found herself in. It’s such a potentially risky subject — to write about your mother who is making a living through illegal means. Particularly as an African-American woman, I knew that, on the surface, that story could sound one way. But my mission was not to have you decide what you thought about her, but to make sure you understood the milieu and the context. And then you could decide. But those things were inseparable for me: her story and the world in which she found herself.
Growing up, how did you understand the numbers, and its centrality to African-American communities like this one?
As a child, I just knew that’s what my mom did. I knew that lots of people within our midst liked to “play the numbers,” as they’d say. It was just part of that thing that seemed normal. So many people around me were discussing the numbers and what they had dreamed and having “hit” and wanting to “hit.” It was just part of that world. I had no idea what role the numbers played in the black community. I had no clue about that: their history or their importance, what they were really supporting. I thought it was a game, in a way, but my mom made a living from helping people play that game. That’s how I processed it. By 1972, the lottery was legal in Detroit. Then I saw it differently — as this thing that I knew black people were doing and had created and were certainly running, and then suddenly, the state was usurping it and it looked exactly the same to me. I was coming of age and becoming to understand more just as the numbers were really being taken over, essentially, by the state. That was all happening at the same time. And that’s where research is extraordinary: It helped me understand my own life, and it gave clarity and an actual context for what I had experienced. I know and understand my mother on a level I never did or could have, had I not written this book.
So how did your perception of her change? As you’re researching all this, your relationship to your own mother is changing.
So deep. You’re right. I appreciate her on a level beyond what I ever imagined. Not only because I’m a mother myself — of course that’s a piece of it — but to see what she pulled off, to see what she was up against, to see that sleight of hand that she had so that we were never fully cognizant of what that risk was and what incredible work it took to create that sense of stability.
I imagine that changed the shape of the book as well.
Oh, absolutely. [Laughs] I didn’t know where the book would actually go: In some ways, I wasn’t ever completely certain it would “work” until it was done. I was researching it constantly, and largely that meant interviewing family and friends. I did over two dozen interviews with people who knew her, knew us, and my mom’s remaining siblings. I didn’t know what they were going to tell me. I was so naive going in, I wasn’t sure who knew what our family did, and who didn’t know. That definitely shapes the narrative. You’re taught as a journalist not to predetermine the story before you go in. This was clear for me from the beginning. You know you have family lore. There were certain things in our family that had become like legend around my mom, and I knew I wanted to tell a lot of those stories. But beyond that, I wasn’t sure what I would find. I really had to allow the story to be what it needed to be.
With that, to go back to my question earlier: What did it need to be? What does your mother’s story have to teach us?
I think my mom was both extraordinary and typical. I think that she really embodied that way that so many African-Americans moved through the world. She made a way out of no way. There are parts of Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, that are so familiar to me, because she’s really unveiling a world of people that have not been given attention — although they’re everywhere, they’re in our midst: working- and middle-class black folks who don’t make the news, who no one writes books [or] makes TV shows and movies about. But I know that’s the life I grew up in: that culture, that community. I’m hoping that’s one big thing people take away — that they’re given access to a community of black folks that are just wanting what everyone wants, in chasing that American dream. They’re pretty extraordinary in their ordinariness because of that added barrier that’s been in place for African-Americans throughout this country’s history.
And I hope people just appreciate this black woman who values beauty and who believed in a rich life. I mean that in every sense of the word. Who felt it was a good thing to indulge her children. And that everyone, black folks included, has the right to that pursuit of happiness.
But do you wonder or worry at all about people’s reaction? This is an illegal operation she’s running, knowingly.
I used to — that stopped me, honestly, from telling the story sooner. I was so concerned about being judged. And most of all, I was concerned about my mother being judged. But maturity helps. And I’ll be honest: After years of working on my craft, I felt I was capable of giving this story its due. That took a while. I reached a point where I was so proud of her that the pride was bigger and more important than anyone who could judge me.
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The World According to Fannie Davis