The World According to Fannie Davis

My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers


By Bridgett M. Davis

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As seen on the Today Show: This true story of an unforgettable mother, her devoted daughter, and their life in the Detroit numbers of the 1960s and 1970s highlights “the outstanding humanity of black America” (James McBride).

In 1958, the very same year that an unknown songwriter named Berry Gordy borrowed $800 to found Motown Records, a pretty young mother from Nashville, Tennessee, borrowed $100 from her brother to run a numbers racket out of her home. That woman was Fannie Davis, Bridgett M. Davis’s mother.

Part bookie, part banker, mother, wife, and granddaughter of slaves, Fannie ran her numbers business for thirty-four years, doing what it took to survive in a legitimate business that just happened to be illegal. She created a loving, joyful home, sent her children to the best schools, bought them the best clothes, mothered them to the highest standard, and when the tragedy of urban life struck, soldiered on with her stated belief: “Dying is easy. Living takes guts.”

A daughter’s moving homage to an extraordinary parent, The World According to Fannie Davis is also the suspenseful, unforgettable story about the lengths to which a mother will go to “make a way out of no way” and provide a prosperous life for her family — and how those sacrifices resonate over time.


Author's Note

Dear Reader,


Because of the many years that have passed, and the ephemeral nature of the Numbers themselves, the physical record that remains of my mother's business is scant. But my memory of her work is not; it is vivid. To edify and enhance my own memory, I've also relied on the recollections and knowledge of my mother's sister and brother, my nephew and cousins, and childhood friends. I've joined these interviews with extensive research, my own earlier writings and diary entries, as well as family documents and personal papers kept in my mother's brass trunk—to reconstruct the world of my childhood and young adulthood as the youngest daughter of my mother, Fannie Drumwright Davis Robinson, who ran Numbers in Detroit. This is her story. And mine.

…They did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing.

—Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

—Maya Angelou


On a morning like most, I sit beside Mama at the dining room table, eating my bowl of Sugar Frosted Flakes and watching her work. She's on the telephone, its receiver in the crook of her neck as she records her customer's three-digit bets in a spiral notebook, repeating each one. The crystal chandelier blazes above.

"Five-four-two for a quarter. Six-nine-three straight for fifty cents. Is this both races, Miss Queenie? Detroit and Pontiac? Okay. Three-eight-eight straight for a quarter. Uh-huh. Four-seven-five straight for fifty cents. One-ten boxed for a dollar." Mama writes the numbers 110, draws a box around them, hesitates. "You know, I got customers been playing one-ten all week. Yeah, it's a fancy number. Oh did you? What'd you dream? He was a hunchback? Is that what The Red Devil dream book say it play for? Now that I didn't know. I know theater plays for one ten. Well, I can take it for a dollar, but since it's a fancy, I can't take it for more than that. You understand. What else, Miss Queenie? Six-eight-four for fifty cents boxed, uh-huh. Nine-seven-two straight for a dollar."

I find comfort in Mama's voice, in the familiar, rhythmic recitation of numbers. I bring the bowl to my lips and drink the last of the sweetened milk before I rise and kiss Mama's forehead. She mouths "Bye-bye" as I join my sister Rita, who's waiting on the porch; together we walk three long blocks to Winterhalter Elementary and Junior High School, passing by the lush Russell Woods Park. I'm a first grader.

In class, I wait in line to show my teacher, Miss Miller, my assignment. We've had to color paper petals, cut them out, and paste them onto a picture of a flower. I like mine, as I've glued each one just at the base, so that the petals now reach out, into a pop-up flower. Miss Miller looks over my work, gives it one star instead of two, and stops me before I can return to my seat.

"You sure do have a lot of shoes," she says. Last week, she asked what my father did for a living, and because I knew never to disclose the family business I said, "He doesn't work." She asked: "Well, what does your mother do?" I froze. "I'm not sure," I lied. I knew my mother was in the Numbers, but I also knew not to tell that to anyone. I worried that my vague answer was the wrong one, but I didn't know a better response. No one had told me yet what I should say.

Now with Miss Miller staring at me I look down at my feet, which are clad in—I still remember—light blue patent leather slip-ons with lace-trimmed buckles. A favorite pair bought to match a brocade ensemble I've just worn for Easter. I nod, not knowing what else to do.

"Before you sit down, I want you to name every pair of shoes you have," she insists. "Go ahead." There's no lightness in her voice.

Anxious, I go through a mental inventory of the shoes that line the built-in rack in my bedroom closet. I manage to recall ten pairs in various colors and styles: the black-and-white polka-dotted ones with a bow tie; the buckled ruby-red ones, the salmon-pink lace-ups…

"Ten pairs is an awful lot," says Miss Miller. Her blue eyes fix on me with something I can't name, but which I'd now call disdain, and she orders me to take my seat.

I can feel my classmates staring at me as I return to my table. Is it wrong to have so many pairs of shoes? Did my mother get them in a bad way?

The next day in class, Miss Miller calls me back to her desk. I can smell the hairspray in her teased blond bouffant. "You didn't mention you had white shoes," she snaps.

Indeed, I'm wearing a white version of the same pair I wore the previous day. I feel as though I've been caught in a lie, and I know I've disappointed my teacher. I worry that I'll get in trouble. At school, or worse, at home.

"I'm sorry," I whisper.

Miss Miller shakes her head in disgust and dismisses me with a wave of her hand.

I return to my desk, trying hard not to look down at my shoes. I am ashamed of them.

That evening, I tell Mama what happened. But I wait until after she's finished taking her customers' bets and before the day's winning numbers come out. I've already learned that the best time to tell Mama difficult news, something that could get you in trouble, is during that brief, expectant pause in the day. That's when Mama is least distracted, and still in a good mood.

She listens, and when I confess I forgot to tell Miss Miller about the eleventh pair of shoes, her dark eyes flash with anger. I fear a spanking.

"That's none of her damn business!" she says. "Who does she think she is?"

Before I can feel relief that she's not mad at me, Mama says, "Get your coat and let's go."

I do as I'm told. Mama throws on her soft blue leather coat, the color of the Periwinkle crayon in my Crayola box, and together we slide into her new Buick Riviera; are we headed back to school to confront Miss Miller? Thank God no, as Mama heads south, away from Winterhalter Elementary; she soon turns onto Second Avenue, drives to the corner of Lothrop, and parks in front of the New Center building. There sits Saks Fifth Avenue.

We enter through regal double doors and I instantly fall in love with the store's marble floors, brass elevators, and bright chandeliers. I feel lucky just being here. Mama takes my hand and leads me to the children's shoe department, where an array of options spreads before us. She points to a pair of yellow patent leather shoes. "Those are pretty," she says.

Perhaps the saleswoman looks at us askance, given how rare it must have been to see black people inside Detroit's upscale shops in the sixties, but I don't remember. What I do remember is how nonchalantly Mama opens her wallet, pulls out a hundred-dollar bill, and pays for the shoes, while the saleswoman looks at her the way Miss Miller looked at me.

When we get home, Mama says, "You're going to wear these to school tomorrow. And you better tell that damn teacher of yours that you actually have a dozen pairs of shoes, you hear me?"

The next day, I wear my brand-new shoes with a matching yellow knit dress. Nervous as I walk up to my teacher's desk, I announce: "Miss Miller, I have twelve pairs of shoes." She looks down at my feet and then levels those blue eyes at my face. "Sit down."

Miss Miller never says another word to me. I feel her rejection but I'm also relieved; I no longer have to worry about what I wear to school, or feel bad about my nice things. I feel both protected and indulged by Mama. Growing up, that's how it was for me, and my three older sisters and brother. We lived well thanks to Mama and her Numbers, which inured us from judgment. My mother's message to black and white folks alike was clear: It's nobody's business what I do for my children, nor how I manage to do it.

The fact that Mama gave us an unapologetically good life by taking others' bets on three-digit numbers, collecting their money when they didn't win, paying their hits when they did, and profiting from the difference, is the secret I've carried with me throughout my life. I've come to see it as her triumphant Great Migration tale: Fannie Davis left Jim Crow Nashville for Detroit in the midfifties with an ailing husband and three small children, and figured out how to "make a way out of no way" by building a thriving lottery business that gave her a shot at the American dream. Her ingenuity and talent and dogged pursuit of happiness made possible our beautiful home, brimming refrigerator, and quality education. Our job as her children was twofold: to take advantage of every opportunity she created, and to keep safe the family secret. The word illegal was never spoken, but the Numbers were by their nature and design an underground enterprise. We understood this. So my siblings and I followed her edict: Keep your head up and your mouth shut. Be proud and be private.

But as I grew older, our family secret became the paradox of my life. I idolized my mother and loved being her daughter, was especially grateful for the example she'd set. As an adult, I wanted to share with the world her generous nature and keen parenting skills and sharp business know-how. But of course the bravest, badass part of her life had to be kept hush-hush. I considered writing a thinly veiled fictional story, but even that felt too risky. And writing about my mother without mentioning the Numbers would be fruitless. I know because I tried and it didn't work. Mama and her Numbers were inextricably intertwined. So, I kept quiet.

After Mama died in 1992, my sister Rita briefly took over running the business; but she eventually closed it down and our family's life in Numbers ended, and with it, the threat of exposure disappeared. For the next two decades, I told no one but my husband what my mother had done for a living. The family secret, a handed-down order, was well in place by the time I was born. It was all I'd known my entire life. I am hardwired not to tell. I can still hear Mama's voice, hear her warning: "No good can come from running your mouth."

I believed her. And I didn't want to betray Mama's trust, nor dishonor her legacy. I worried that people would judge her, judge us, for her livelihood. Besides, as long as I kept her secret, abided by her rule, I kept her alive in my memory. Telling would be odd, might trigger a betrayal that led to forgetting. I grappled with that odd dissonance for a long time, proud of my mother but unable to brag about her.

Over time, as I began to understand the depth of my loss, my own feelings shifted, and I wanted to tell Mama's story; this desire grew into a smoldering, yearning urge that got harder and harder to suppress. I felt cheated. As dynamic and trailblazing as she was, I couldn't brag about her the way friends bragged about their own mothers going back to school to get a PhD, or surviving as divorced single moms or joining the Peace Corps at fifty. Now it was killing me to keep her life's work a secret, and I compensated by talking about her incessantly, quoting her pithy sayings whenever an opportunity presented itself. I made sure those who hadn't met her learned via my constant bragging how exceptional she was. If asked, I told people my mother had been "in real estate," that she managed properties she owned, that her livelihood came from collecting rent—a half-truth. (Little did I know that "being in real estate" was code for being a number runner.)

As more years passed, I began to feel remiss for not telling, guilty of omitting such a crucial fact about my mother's life. I talked about her less and less because of that guilt, and that saddened me, as I knew that my mother's work had transformed our family's lives, kept us going. It felt disrespectful, really, to keep quiet, as though I was dishonoring Mama with my silence. I was who I was because my mother chose to be a number runner, and my own children didn't even know who their grandmother had been, what she'd accomplished with her life. A secret, good or bad, weighs on you.

And there was this new fear: If I didn't tell, would I forget what the Numbers were? Grappling with these mixed emotions, for years I topped my New Year's resolution list with the same goal: "Tell Mama's story." But I still couldn't get past the habit of withholding, or the fear of revelation.

Finally, in the way in which we draw from public figures' mythic lives for personal inspiration, I convinced myself that if patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. could allegedly use his early years as a bootlegger to launch his family's fortune, actions that brought him no recrimination since alcohol became legal anyway, then Mama's work was analogous. She too engaged in a business practice that eventually became legal.

And so I took a big, scary step: I flew to Detroit, sat at the dining room table across from my aunt Florence, my mother's remaining sister, who was celebrating her eightieth birthday that year, and nervously asked the one person whose permission I most needed: Would it be okay with her if I wrote about Fannie's life as a number runner? My aunt's answer surprised me.

"Honey, I'll help you tell it," she said. "'Cause what your mama did was unheard of, what she created was something else and folks should know." And then she smiled. "She made sure you didn't have to worry about no life in Numbers, so I know you don't really understand too much. I'll explain it to you."

I laughed with relief. She was right. I didn't understand the intricacies of the Numbers business. Having Aunt Florence's blessing and her know-how freed me. I started by digging through an old brass trunk filled with my mother's possessions that I'd kept in storage in Manhattan for many years. I hadn't looked through this trunk since Mama's death. Inside, I found a manila envelope filled with nearly a dozen letters that my sister Rita, four years older and the closest sibling to me in age, had written to God. They were composed on pages clearly ripped from the spiral notebooks once ubiquitous in our home, used to record customers' bets, bills, and payouts. In one letter, my then twelve-year-old sister wrote:

Dear God,

Please don't let 543 come out tonight. And please take away Mama's headaches.

Your loving servant, Rita

In another letter, she simply wrote:

Dear God,

Please stop me from worrying.

Thank you, Rita

I'd known that Rita wrote letters to God and stuffed them into the family Bible when we were growing up, but I'd never actually seen one. Reading those letters, all of equal plea, written in a child's hand, blew open the honed narrative about my mother that I'd burnished over the years. With her number running, she'd pulled off an amazing feat worthy of recognition. But the truth was more complicated, and stark: Mama's livelihood was risky business, and my sister articulated the stress we all felt from living with that risk. Rita also understood that given the secret nature of our lives, she could only confide in God.

Back then Rita understood what I did not. To maintain our comfort, Mama fought steadily against the threats of fierce competition and wipeouts, but also against exposure and police busts—and thanks to the cash business she was in, armed robberies and break-ins. Rita knew before I did that Mama carried a pistol in her pocketbook, kept another one in her bedroom. Still a child, and the baby of the family, I knew just enough to keep our secret safe; but my sister, a preteen, knew enough to worry about our safety.

And while it was important to keep our secret, it wasn't at the forefront of my young life. That word secret is so loaded, suggests its country cousin, shame; but I wasn't ashamed of anything because our family secret wasn't dark, and my mother acted neither apologetic nor embarrassed. Secrecy was my normal, part of what it meant to be the child of a particular kind of small business owner: you help out, you keep quiet and you either go into the family business one day, or vow to do something else with your life.

Also, while I knew to preserve our secret, I didn't fully appreciate what could happen if it got out. Yes, Mama could get busted, but I didn't process what that meant: that our good life would end. No one in our family ever talked about it, but we knew. Mama's was a cash business and plenty of money was always literally in our midst, yet my siblings and I understood viscerally that our middle-class prosperity was tenuous, always under threat, because Mama's livelihood was based on a win-or-lose daily gamble. Nowhere was that threat more evident than in our household's nightly ritual: as dusk fell and we all waited for the day's winning numbers to come out, a tense silence moved through our home like a nervous prayer. And once it was past 7 p.m. and we knew those three-digit combinations, we took our cues from Mama. Either she looked relieved, or she looked worried. Either she'd been lucky that day, or her customers had been. If she found a big hit by one of her customers, the energy in our household shifted to the solemn yet brisk activity of gathering and counting money, oftentimes large sums of it. Yet Mama never resented her customers' wins. "People play numbers to hit," she used to say. "So you can't be mad when they do. Business is business."

Each time my mother had a large payout, I didn't realize she could be wiped out. Despite the "good spell" versus "rough patch" nature of her work, Mama never conveyed a sense of fear or instability. She was a domestic magician with incredible sleight of hand. She made our family's life appear stable and secure. And so I might've been anxious beyond my own understanding, but in my day-to-day world, I believed there was nothing to worry about.

I now know that risks were everywhere, coming from different sources, reverberating inward. How hard it must have been to shield us from the vagaries of the business, all run from our home, in full view, where the phones and the doorbell rang constantly and the work of running the Numbers sometimes continued until bedtime. It was risky for Mama to send that "how dare you" message to my first-grade teacher. Doing so could've invited Miss Miller's wrath and retaliation. The year was 1967, mere weeks before Detroit's uprising, its infamous "race riot." Racial tensions ran high. Miss Miller could've reported to authorities her suspicions about our family's income. I now think of the risk Mama took that day as a small revolutionary act, just one of many.

My mother gave us a good life at great expense. I thought I knew her skills as a number runner, that she used her facility with numbers, good judge of character, winning personality, and dose of good luck to build and maintain her business for three decades. But I had no idea just how much of a gambler she was, or the kind of psychological work it took to keep our world afloat.

Scariest of all is this: the only way for me to tell Mama's story is to defy her, by running my mouth.

Part I

Hitsville, USA

Fannie, her brother John, and her sister Florence,
Detroit, 1970s



The address listed on my birth certificate is 8878 North Clarendon. That two-family flat must've felt like a lucky place for my mother, her nicest home yet in Detroit. It's easy to see why, as soon as we moved in, she got a hunch to play the first three digits of our address and adopted a version of that combination as her "pet" number. Soon enough, Mama hit on 788. I like that word hit, its imagery of striking back against a formidable force, of swinging bat against ball for the win, of landing on a great idea. It conjures up a hero's triumph, and my mother is the hero of this story. Her win is mythic in our family lore.

"How much did she hit for?" I once asked Aunt Florence.

"Hell, Fannie hit for big money!" said Florence. "She had fifty dollars or something on that number!"

I marvel at the grandeur of my aunt's claim, that with a 500-to-1 payout, Mama hit for $25,000 or more. This she did in the city already known as Hitsville, USA, thanks to Berry Gordy and his winning Motown Records. That amount was easily more than a decade's salary for my father, a factory worker.

"Fannie was just lucky," says Aunt Florence. And then she explains her sister's big hit this way: "It was because she gave so freely. That's why Fannie had such good luck."

I'd heard this about my mother my entire life, that she was a lucky woman, and that her luck was a direct consequence of her generosity. The two are entwined in her sister's and others' minds, one explaining the other. I've come to believe my mom's luck was in fact preparation meeting opportunity. As for her big hit, no one is certain exactly how much money my mother played on 788 that day, because she never told anyone. I'm sure she was happy to let everyone believe she won many, many thousands of dollars, neither confirming nor denying the story. She would love that her good fortune all those years ago has now become a legend, one made more engaging because she hit with a man whose name was Wingate.

This I do know: She did give freely, and she did win big; and whatever the amount, it was enough to change the trajectory of our family's fortunes. With her winnings, Mama decided to buy a house.

She considered buying a home in Conant Gardens, the all-black, exclusive enclave of doctors, ministers, funeral parlor owners, and lawyers, i.e., the black bourgeoisie; but that wasn't her crowd. Besides, she had little use for separate but so-called equal. My mother understood from her Southern roots a basic principle that still holds true: where there's a white presence, there will be amenities. She wanted grocery stores with quality produce and roads that got repaired and streetlights that came on magically at dusk and garbage that got collected on time. She believed that as long as her children sat beside white classmates in a public school, we'd all receive a decent education. "I pay the same taxes," she used to say. "I should have the same benefits."

The year was 1961, and because a sweet irony was occurring, she had options: Detroit's black residents were finally winning their legal fight to live where they wanted, thanks to the efforts of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, which was the largest in the nation, and interestingly, believed to be funded heavily by the city's number runners. Rather than live beside black neighbors, upper-middle-class residents who could afford to fled the city for the suburbs; that flutter of white flight meant they had to sell their houses to black buyers.

My mother fell in love with one of those houses, a three-story, four-bedroom New England–style Colonial red brick with a big backyard, on a tree-lined wide avenue appropriately named Broadstreet. The house was in an area on the city's west side called Russell Woods, where white clerks, engineers, accountants, midlevel white-collar workers, and businessmen all once lived. Other houses on the block were in a variety of architectural types, one a mock French château, another a Tudor style, and others replicas of formal Georgian estates. All of them were designed to be small-scale versions of the more elaborate houses of the auto execs and bankers and doctors and lawyers who lived in the tonier neighborhoods throughout the city. A pretty park was nearby. Winterhalter, a good elementary and junior high school, was just four blocks up the same street. Mackenzie High was not much farther.

The curb appeal was irresistible: The house's front porch was wide and generous, beneath a striped awning. Its front door was spectacularly curved at the top, with a heavy brass circular knocker, a molded animal head at its center. It could've been the door of a small castle. The tall, rectangular leaded-pane windows were each adorned with stained-glass designs etched across the top, and the front porch's iron balustrade had curving balusters both decorative and protective. Even its address was appealing, five whimsical dark digits tumbling across a white plaque: 12836.

On April fifteenth, tax day, my mother carried me on her hip as she strode up the curvy walkway of our new home, crossing the threshold and stepping us into the middle class. She was just shy of thirty-three and had migrated north with my father six years before. I'd soon celebrate my first birthday. My sister Rita was days away from turning five, my brother, Anthony, was eight, my sister Selena Dianne was twelve, and my oldest sister, Deborah, was fourteen. Mama paid $16,700 for the house. The average cost of a home that year was $12,500. The sellers were a white businessman named Torkom Prince and his wife, Beatrice.


  • New York Times Editor's Choice

Buzzfeed Best Book of the Year
Parade Best Book of 2019
Kirkus Best Memoirs of the Year
Code Switch Book Club pick
Well-Read Black Girl Book Club Pick
A Buzzfeed Book Club Pick
NBC's Best African-American Memoirs That Belong On Your Bookshelf

  • "The World According to Fannie Davis is a daughter's gesture of loving defiance, an act of reclamation, an absorbing portrait of her mother in full. Blending memoir and social history, [Davis] recounts her mother's extraordinary story alongside the larger context of Motor City's rise and fall."—Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

  • "Davis's heartwarming memoir honors her remarkable mother, who made a good life for her family in the '60s and '70s."—New York Times, Editor's Choice

  • "A rich and heartwarming memoir honors a remarkable mother....We need more stories like Fannie's-the triumph and good life of a lucky black woman in a deeply corrupt world."—New York Times Book Review

  • "The novelist and teacher illuminates the life of her iron-willed mother, who in the 1960s and '70s spearheaded
    Detroit's shadow economy (through an illegal lottery known as "The Numbers") in order to bolster both her family and the city's burgeoning black middle class."—O, Oprah Magazine Reading Room

  • "The author candidly and poignantly transports readers to her formative years in Detroit, where her mother, Fannie, successfully ran numbers-- right from the family's dining room table-- with class, determination and dignity to spare."—Bridgette Bartlett Royall, Essence Magazine

  • "The book blends memoir with the compelling social history of the numbers, a lottery game that operated outside of the law but very much inside the context of African-American life and culture."—Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

  • "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."—Entertainment Weekly

  • "Novelist Bridgett M. Davis turned to nonfiction in what started out as the story of her mother...But this memoir turned out to be much more: a panorama of African-American communities in this era, the resolve they demonstrated and the restrictions put upon them in their pursuit of the American dream. It's a family story of nationwide scale."—David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Bridgett M. Davis draws a loving portrait of her unforgettable mother who gamed the system and won. Davis is a witness to the journey of the African American strivers of Detroit, but she is also a witness to the evolution of her own remarkable family history. Combining rigorous research with an insider's access, The World According To Fannie Davis is a triumphant tale of female empowerment. Bridgett Davis' love letter to her mother lights a bold new path, because sometimes leaning in is not enough."—Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage

  • "This book brought tears to my eyes...Every once in a while, a book comes along that shows the magic, the kindness, the outstanding humanity of a black America that so few now remember... Fannie Davis was always described as 'lucky.' That her talented youngest daughter Bridgett had the good sense to share her story with us all makes us lucky as well."—James McBride, author of The Color of Water, winner of the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird, and recipient of the 2015 National Humanities Medal

  • "A timely, intriguing and well-told story of what it means to come of age during a time when people found so many amazing ways to once amazingly specific and trail blazingly universal. I couldn't put this book down."Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the National Book Award and author of Brown Girl Dreaming and Another Brooklyn

  • "Davis has a great, sharp way of writing about her mom, and she captures the energy of Detroit at that time."—Glory Edim, founder of Well-Read Black Girl

  • "The World According To Fannie Davis is a world of urban wit, grit and toughness. It is also a world of transformative magic- the magic of feminine strength and many people as possible should know about Fannie Davis."—Mary Gaitskill, author of National Book Award finalist Veronica

  • "The payoffs here are many, including this daughter's loving take on that relentless class of African Americans who made prosperity imaginable for others no matter the odds."—Gregory Pardlo, author of Air Traffic and Digest, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

  • "An altogether fresh take on the black experience, and a compelling piece of the American experience. An absorbing and delightful book."—Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World

  • "[A] rare book that successfully combines vivid family memoir with timely social history...I loved this book."—Alysia Abbott, author of Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father

  • Bridgett Davis named a favorite black female American author in the New York Times Style Magazine.—James Hannaham, author of Delicious Foods

  • "A captivating, energetic memoir that entertains and enlightens as it reminds us of the unstoppable force-in life and on the page-of a mother determined to lift her family up."—George Hodgman, veteran magazine and book editor and author of Bettyville

  • "The World According to Fannie Davis is a compelling, unusual book. Bridgett Davis tells an insightful tale of how low-stakes gambling helped fuel-and fund-racial justice work in Detroit, while giving us an intimate, invaluable look at the complexities of class for African-Americans. Her story also makes a trenchant point: If a black family could achieve this much while locked out of decent mortgages and good jobs, imagine what they could have done if given the same opportunities as whites. A fascinating read."—Tracie McMillan, author of the New York Times bestseller The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

  • "Davis' memoir is a loving portrait of her resourceful mother and of Motor City in the 1960s and '70s."—Tom Beer, Newsday

  • "The World According to Fannie Davis is a love letter to [Davis'] mother, but also a crash course in economics and Black history...I gained a clearer understanding of what the phrase ["I'm playing the numbers"] really meant and how the lottery's existence was embedded in the livelihood and welfare of Black lives especially."—Jennifer Baker, Electric Lit

  • "The point of this glorious, elaborate, and cinematic detail is that it says so much about Fannie, healthy black motherhood, and the American experience...Bridgett weaves two other disparate yet fundamentally American stories together through her portrait of her mother. One is a beautifully complex rendering of black motherhood that offers up humanity without stereotype-unfortunately rare in literature about black women. There's a simple but very profound, uncomplicated love between mother and daughter in this book. Another is what Bridgett calls the blue-collar bourgeoisie, a full, vibrant space of ingenuity and enterprise that allows for a multifaceted black humanity to unfold in refreshing and colorful ways."—Kirkus, cover feature

  • "Novelist Bridgett M. Davis, professor at Baruch college and Fannie's youngest child, witnessed it all, and ever since she has fiercely protected her mother with her silence - until now. In her new memoir The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life in the Detroit Numbers, Davis paints a warm, loving portrait of her mother and their tight-knit family - not untouched by tragedy despite their good luck - and what it was like to grow up with the Numbers constantly playing in the background."—Sheila McClear, Longreads

  • "For 34 years, Bridgett Davis' mom, Fannie, ran a numbers racket out of her apartment in one of Detroit's poorest neighborhoods. While the business was illegal, Fannie survived and thrived, raising five kids and a grandson with wit, style and a motto: 'Dying is easy. Living takes guts.'"—Mackenzie Dawson, New York Post "Best Books of the Week"

  • "A remarkable story of a mother...Sharp and unwilling to be hemmed in by the dual restrictions of race and gender, she did what it took to raise a family and to uplift a community...In this admiring and highly compelling memoir, Bridgett Davis tells the story of her beloved mother. This is not a story about capitalizing on degeneracy. It is one of hope and hustling in a world where to have the former almost demanded the latter. This outstanding book is a tribute to one woman but will surely speak to the experiences of many."—Kirkus, starred review

  • "Novelist Davis honors her mother in this lively and heartfelt memoir of growing up in the 1960s and '70s Detroit...This charming tale of a strong and inspirational woman offers a tantalizing glimpse into the past, savoring the good without sugarcoating the bad."
    Publishers Weekly

  • "Must read non-fiction...Readers will be fascinated by Fannie's life and inspired by her love of her family."—Elizabeth Rowe, Bookish

  • "Amoving portrait... Her writing feels rooted in the city and its changing landscape. Combining historical research with extensive interviews, The World According to Fannie Davis is an engrossing tribute to a vibrant, hardworking, unforgettable woman."—Booklist review

  • "[Davis] humanizes the hustle...This book will be a thought-provoking and inspirational delight for anyone searching for understanding in a world designed for only some to succeed."

    Shirley Ngozi Nwangwa, Wellesley Centers for Women

  • "A straight, no chaser view into the life of a Detroit numbers runner, as told in loving tribute by her devoted daughter."—Dawn M. Baskerville, The Grio

  • "Fannie Davis is many things - a history of Detroit in its heyday, a sociology of black migrant culture and a taxonomy of the underground lottery of Fannie's era. Davis interviewed family members and conducted research, excavating Fannie's life and times. But the book is not academic in tone. Davis' account of her mother's life and business is first and foremost a loving memoir."
    Erica Ciccarone, Nashville Scene

  • "This true and suspenseful story is an inspiring tale of an unconventional family."—Ashley Johnson, Parade

  • "Meet Fannie Davis. You won't be forgetting her anytime soon. In this memoir, Bridgett M. Davis recalls growing up in Detroit in the '60s and '70s with the kingpin of an illegal gambling operation for a mother."—Refinery 29

  • "Davis illuminates her mother's efforts to provide for the family despite the racial antagonism of the time. Her beautiful prose turns a tale of perseverance into a love story."—The Christian Science Monitor

  • "Scintillating."—Bill Morris, The Millions

  • "For readers who crave the richer, fuller history of America than is usually imparted by school books, Davis emerges as a valuable and needed voice. But mostly her book stands as a loving tribute to a remarkable woman, her mother."—Joan Gaylord, The Christian Science Monitor

  • On Sale
    Jan 29, 2019
    Page Count
    320 pages

    Bridgett M. Davis

    About the Author

    Bridgett M. Davis is Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing and is Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program. A graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, she is the director of the award-winning feature film Naked Acts, as well as the author of two novels, Into the Go-Slow and Shifting Through Neutral. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her family.

    Learn more about this author