Yet another installment in our interview series. This time round we had a chance to talk with award-winning author Bridgett M. Davis about her life story, her memoirs regarding her mother and her other work.
Your story of growing up is absolutely fascinating. Your mother was an underground entrepreneur running numbers. In an interview I have heard you say that you were kept fairly sheltered from any worry, but there was an implication of potential trouble if the wrong people found out. When you were older did your mother ever mention any close calls or hairy moments, either with cops or customers or attempted thieves when you had grown?
Bridgett M. Davis: I knew that when they were growing the business, when I was very young, my parents got caught with betting slips during a “traffic stop” by cops, and my dad spent a couple nights in jail; but otherwise, the only close call my mom had — one she never told me about but that I learned about through research later — was when J. Edgar Hoover sent FBI agents to Detroit to conduct an orchestrated bust on the Numbers racket in Detroit. My mom evaded capture, in part because she was tipped off, I believe, and because she didn’t “present” as a Numbers runner. She was a woman, she was a housewife, she lived in a “nice” neighborhood. Plus, we had an incinerator in our basement where she burned physical evidence of the business on a regular basis, so I’d like to believe the agents would’ve found no evidence anyway. She stayed one step ahead.
Bridgett M. Davis’s mother was a numbers runner — a bookie who collected bets and paid off wins for the underground lottery business. For her, the chance to support her family, to be self-reliant, was absolutely worth the gamble. https://t.co/LeYxM8QiL2
Did you have protection of some sort at the home? Was there any concern of something happening like a robbery or act of violence?
Robbery or burglary were always potential risks, gievn both that my mom was in a cash business, and that Detroit had a high crime rate in the 1970s and ’80s. My mother both carried a pistol in her pocketbook, and kept on in the linen closet, beneath the lace tablecloth and linen napkins. Fortunately she never had to use either.
Your mother moved from Nashville, Tennessee to Detroit and discovered a totally different type of racism than what she had experienced in the South. Do you think these distinctive varieties of bigotry still exist separated by the Mason Dixon line?
Actually, it wasn’t a different type of racism, it was just unexpected, or under-estimated. My parents optimistically believed that because in the north you could vote freely and go to a decent public school as a Negro, that it was a more equitable place. But bigotry is bigotry. Michigan once had one of the biggest Klan memberships in the nation. And there are still Klan members in Michigan.What’s distinctive is that the south has historically treated these racist practices as part of “southern tradition”, which you see carried out in state government’s policies (under the guise of “state’s rights”), where as pockets of the north may seem more liberal, but these states have their own de facto racism — i.e., segregated housing and education and unequal job opportunities that result in many of the same disparities.
What is moral is not always legal and what’s legal is definitely not always ethical or moral. The state deemed your mother’s business a “criminal enterprise” despite the business being run honestly and legitimately. Did you see some parallels between a legitimately run so-called “criminal enterprise” versus supposedly legitimate businesses like renters who tried to keep some neighborhoods segregated?
The history of America is rife with examples of discriminatory practices put in place as law that are unfair and unjust. Conversely, everything outside the law is not necessarily wrong. As my mom said about her own enterprise, “It’s a legitimate business that just happens to be illegal.” The nation’s entire real estate industry was supposedly legitimate, but it consistently discriminated against black homebuyers — with the Federal government’s support. Because the FDIC wouldn’t insure loans by black homebuyers, claiming the houses were in high-risk “redlined” neighborhoods (anywhere a black family lived — see the circular logic there?), lenders then denied them loans. And when blacks tried to buy homes in non-red-lined areas (read: white neighborhoods), they faced strong opposition to keep them out — via both intimidation by tenant’s associations and violence by mobs.
For people who are unfamiliar can you give a quick description of exactly what “the numbers” or “numbers racket” is?
The Numbers is essentially a pre-cursor to the Lottery that now exists in 45 states in the US. Before there was a legal lottery, there was this underground enterprise, the Numbers, that allowed folks to bet on 3-digit combinations of numbers; customers could win at a ratio of 500:1, so that $1 bet could garner $500 if the customer won. The Numbers game was created in Harlem in the early 1920s, and was run by blacks. It quickly became highly lucrative, and moved across much of the country, evolving into a complex underground economy — spawning jobs for numbers runners and bookies and run by Numbers bosses who became rich; it also spawned ancillary businesses. Millions of dollars were generated by the Numbers racket, which meant among other things that money circulated throughout the black community, spawning and supporting lots of legal businesses; those businesses fulfilled needs in the black community that discrimination and segregation had kept out of their reach. Soon enough, organized crime got involved and eventually wrenched control of the entire Numbers business from blacks. Ultimately, black Numbers bosses worked for Mafia bosses. And then beginning in the late 60s, and through the 70s, states legalized lotteries, decimating (but not totally destroying) the Numbers business.
How long did it take your mother to move up from a penny business bookie working for a banker to running the bank from her home?
It didn’t take long before my mother went from launching a penny business in 1958 to realizing that she could make more money working for a major Numbers banker as a bookie and earning a percentage off of the business she brought in; she switched to that within a couple years of launching her penny business; then within a year, she realized the only way to make real money was to go into business for herself, and have her own customers, and that’s when she launched her own independent business and became her own banker and bookie.
I’m kind of fascinated with the description you gave of “the dream books.” Do you know the origin of these?
Dream books have been around since as early as 1862! (Yes, before slavery ended). Hard to believe but lotteries were once legal in America, back when the 13 colonies used the proceeds to finance capital improvements, before there were state taxes and a stock market to generate revenue; with the arrival of the first dream book, lotteries were still legal in three states. The dream books evolved alongside the lottery games — even when the lotteries were outlawed. By the time the Numbers game arrived, these books had become encyclopedic guides that listed any person, place or thing that you could dream about, and provided a 3-digit number to correspond to that dream. At one point, there were as many as 3 dozen dream books published! Ultimately, a handful dominated. In our household, there were The Red Devil and The Three Wise Men dream books.
100 Days of Hoodoo Day 47. This 1931 excerpt from the Sonny Boy Sam comic strip featured images of the ‘numbers’ and dream books. The strip would frequently contain hints as to what numbers to play in the policy. pic.twitter.com/ArQp1OBQKo
I found it really interesting how through your mother you’re about one degree of separation from Berry Gordy’s Motown. Can you tell me a bit about Eddie Wingate and the lifestyle of a Detroit big money numbers banker?
Yes, Berry Gordy launched Motown in the same year my mother launched her Numbers business.
Eddie Wingate was a mythological figure! He was a millionaire by the 1960s, and a top Numbers man in the city. He employed dozens of people to run his operation. He likely worked for the Italian mafia. He was ruthless, and he liked to spend his money lavishly. He own racehorses. And he was also a big booster of the city. He launched several local businesses, including a record label (Golden World) that rivaled Motown. Legend has it that Gordy bought him out for $1 million.
Numbers runners were running a de jure illegal business, but in a time when the civil rights struggle was in its infancy many incredibly awful things were “by the book legal.” Considering numbers runners would often give back to the community, loaning money, starting insurance companies, newspapers and donating to charities that benefited people of color did it imbue the scene with a sort of Robin Hood versus King John type atmosphere?
Yes! Numbers men (and in my case, the only woman) were pillars of the community; they were “race men” and believed in uplifting the race. Joe Louis would not have become a world heavyweight champion without Numbers money; local black politicians were elected to office, the NAACP was kept afloat, and people stayed employed all thanks to Numbers money. Never mind that for customers, hitting the number provided much-needed resources too.
The story of the evolution of the numbers in a world of legalized lottery is another interesting area in this story. You mother ingeniously managed workarounds that kept her in business despite continued changes in the legalized lottery. Do you have any thoughts in general on decriminalization versus legalization? For instance, in areas where the cannabis industry is legalized there is still a criminalized black market that often makes it prohibitively difficult and expensive for an average person, especially if they are born in a certain socio-economic bracket, to break into the industry when it’s legalized as opposed to decriminalized.
The correlation between the Numbers and the cannabis industry is a strong one. Both involved stigmas and laws criminalizing their activity across decades, largely as a way of arresting and imprisoning blacks. Both were ultimately deemed legal and “socially acceptable”, even as the economic engine that fueled them — and therefore communities — was snatched away by government and/or private industry. Now the very people once penalized for engaging in the practice no longer have access to running it or making money off of it, now that it’s legal.
So you still play the lottery occasionally and often bet on 313 (the Detroit area code) and 788, which was your mother’s favorite. You’ve said your mother was a firm believer in luck and creating or conjuring luck, was there any sort of mystical import to the number 788?
I still play both 313, which according to the Three Wise Men dream book plays for “joy”, and I still play 788. The number 788 has mystical power because in numerology, the number “7” is powerful; also in Numbers lore, double-digits have power. But it was my mom’s “pet” number because it was a version of her address in her first nice home in Detroit, and she hit big on it back when I was a baby. She used the proceeds to put a down payment on our family home. I also play my home address, 675, which plays for the name “Fannie” in the Red Devil Dream book.
In an interview with Mosaic magazine you say that Louise Meriweather, author of Daddy Was a Numbers Runner, is a major literary idol. Did you really connect with that considering your situation? Was it a major influence that led to you writing your memoir? Also what are some other authors who inspired and influenced you?
Louise Meriweather’s story absolutely transformed my life. Her life was like mine! I hadn’t known before I read her book as a child that anyone else had my experience. And ultimately, yes, her book influenced my memoir, which had as its working title, MAMA WAS A NUMBER RUNNER. Other authors that have influenced me over the years are Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich (Love Medicine) and Elizabeth Strout (Amy and Isabelle) and Katherine Harrison (Thicker Than Water) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping) and Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things).
Into The Go-Slow deals with the revolutionary spirit and finding yourself with a story of two sisters and a pilgrimage to Nigeria. You’ve said you were inspired by Chinua Achebe, who was my introduction to African literature as a teen. What was it like making your own journey there? Was this trip part of the inspiration for the novel?
Into the Go-Slow is completed inspired by my own trip to Nigeria during the period in which the story takes place. Acquainting myself with Achebe’s novels (first in college), and then having the chance to spend time in Nigeria (where I discovered more of his work) gave me so many more ways to understand my own Americanness and my blackness and my African heritage.
You wrote and directed the film Naked Acts which was released in 1996. It debuted at the historic Thalia theater and won dozens of awards. The first scene is available on YouTube and really captivated me from the start. Is this film available on DVD or streaming or will it be and are you planning any future forays into moviemaking?
Naked Acts, my first “published” creative work — my first child, really! — was released on DVD back in 2000. While a few rare copies may still be floating around on the internet, it’s not widely available. I am planning to put it up on my website soon, for viewers to stream.
Shifting Through Neutral, like Into the Go-Slow, takes place in Detroit. How has Detroit as a place affected and informed you as a person and a writer?
Detroit shaped me. The city made me who I am, and it is as integral to my identity as a writer as Mississippi is to Jesmyn Ward, as Atlanta is to Tayari Jones, as Haiti is to Edwidge Danticat, or for that matter that as Faulkner’s fictional county in Mississippi was to him. It continues to be a source of inspiration, as well as a place that fascinates and unsettles me
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and especially for young people of color who have literary dreams?
I’d advise aspiring writers to: read widely and broadly, subscribe to an insider’s guide like POETS & WRITERS magazine (to learn about the literary/publishing world & learn its language), join a writer’s group, make writing a daily practice, consider getting an MFA and/or visit an artists’ colony, or at least attend writer’s conferences; the goal is to meet folks in the publishing world, to find like-minds, and to give yourself permission to be a writer. For writers of color specifically, seek out literary communities with other people of color, for the support.
Finally, I’d advise aspiring writers to be good literary citizens — buy emerging authors’ books, support independent bookstores, attend readings, write book reviews, offer to read friends’ works in progress….invest in the literary community whose support you’ll one day seek. Add to its vibrancy.
We’ve been celebrating Women’s History Month all March and are asking all the talented women we were talking to to name a few women who have changed their lives for the better. It can be someone you know personally or just someone you admired.
It’s no longer WHM, but it IS almost Mother’s Day, so this question is perfect timing: The most important woman in my life is my mother. She transformed my life, was my “shero”, and her legacy is what I aspire to live up to every day. The greatest accomplishment in my career has been to write a memoir that honors my mom, allowing readers to benefit from the shimmer of her wisdom. I was lucky to be her daughter, and I’m grateful for that.
Where can people learn more about your work and find you online?
People can find out about my books and my film and my essays on my website: bridgettdavis.com. They can follow me on social media too:
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