Twelve-year-old Francie Coffin is going to be late getting back to school, again. Chatty Mrs. Mackey is delaying her with talk of dreams they both had the night before, dreams about fish. Madame Zora’s dream book gives the number 514 for fish dreams. This is important because Francie has come to collect Mrs. Mackey’s wager on the day’s number. Francie, Mrs. Mackey, and their Harlem neighbors all pin their hopes on “the numbers,” a type of daily underground lottery. Francie collects Mrs. Mackey’s number slip and money on behalf of her father, a neighborhood number runner. As Francie observes, “A number runner is something like Santa Claus and any day you hit the number is Christmas.” Before Francie can make it home to the railroad flat apartment where her mother serves her a dreaded potted-meat sandwich and a weak cup of tea for lunch, she’s chased by Sukie, a bully who also happens to be her best friend. Sukie threatens to “beat the shit out of” Francie yet again. Sukie is evil, light-skinned, and pretty. Francie, who laments being “skinny and black and bad looking,” envies Sukie. Sukie isn’t the only danger lurking around Francie’s tenement. There’s also the bald white man in the doorway to the roof of the building—the same man who had recently followed Francie into a movie theater and gave her a dime before fumbling beneath her skirt.
Forty years after I first read Louise Meriwether’s novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, I still know these opening scenes like the back of my hand. I reread this book countless times from my elementary school years through high school; it was that good. Meriwether’s writing is beautiful, layered, and gutting. She renders Francie’s story such that it was as accessible and compelling to me as a precocious ten-year-old as it is when I read it today, a testament to Meriwether’s craft. Rereading Daddy Was a Number Runner was like catching up with an old friend. Francie’s fraught world—1934 Harlem—differed from mine in key ways. But as a Black girl reader, I didn’t even know I was hungry to see myself, even partially, in a book until I finally did.
In Jacksonville, Florida, in the seventies, I didn’t leave school in the middle of the day to go home for lunch; I was bussed thirty minutes each way from my Black neighborhood to a white school in the suburbs, thanks to Brown v. The Board of Education. But both my family and Francie’s had gone on welfare (during the thirties, it was called “relief”). For us, it was only for a brief time, until my young, struggling single mother found a full-time job. Francie’s father couldn’t find work that didn’t insult his pride, and their family lived hand to mouth, even while on relief.
In my world, my father wasn’t a number runner; he worked at a luggage manufacturing plant, and he didn’t live with my mother and me.
In my world, my light-skinned best friend didn’t bully me, but she was considered the cute one, while I was the smart one.
In my world, no one talked to me about sex. I got my incomplete sex education from Jackie Collins novels. But I was still more knowledgeable than sweet, naive Francie who believed “the whores did it,” but not her parents.
But we were both Black girls blossoming, Francie and me. Girls “on the edge of a terrifying womanhood,” as James Baldwin wrote in the novel’s foreword. Where Francie was “flat-chested and hollow,” I was plump; puberty had hit at age nine. Instead of predatory white men, it was Black men, the uncles, brothers, and fathers of my schoolmates, who catcalled and made lewd gestures at me, who made me feel like prey. Unprotected.
Published in 1970, a year before I was born, Meriwether’s beloved and critically acclaimed coming-of-age novel takes us through a year in the life of Francie. Her family, friends, and neighbors struggle and look out for one another in the wake of the Great Depression, burdened by relentless poverty, racism, the stigma of “going on relief,” dirty cops, and the ever-present threat of violence at the hands of those inside and outside their community. One of Francie’s older brothers can’t resist the lure of a street gang, while the other tires of being teased by his racist white classmates for being poor.
In addition to the bald white man and other men and boys who accost her, Francie is also molested by two other white men, the neighborhood butcher and the baker, whenever she is alone with them in their shops. These passages detailing assaults on Francie unsettled me during my recent reading, just as they did when I was a young reader, albeit for different reasons. Meriwether’s deft prose captured the tension I felt in my own community as a child who was cherished and looked after, but also at times victimized. As an adult, I read these passages as the mother of two daughters, silently begging Francie to tell somebody, anybody, what was being done to her. But then I remember the times I didn’t tell and the times I did, and how the outcome was the same. Daddy Was a Number Runner testifies to a painful truth: the systems and people who fail Black girls and women have been failing us for a very long time.
The violence Francie experiences isn’t the only reason adult-me wants to reach into the pages and hug her. Like Francie, I was once a child embarrassed by her family’s poverty. Year after year, I refused to bring home the paperwork that would allow me to get free lunch at school, something that would’ve made things easier for my mother. Somehow, though, within the first few weeks of school, I always ended up with a free lunch ticket that burned with shame in my hand. Now, as a mother who has had to buy bread with nickels within the last five years, I wish I could tell Francie that the shame of not having enough in one of the wealthiest nations in the world does not belong to her.
Where I now want to hug Francie and her long-suffering mother, I want to shake some sense into her father. Meriwether portrays him as a loving, involved disciplinarian … until he isn’t. When he feels forced to choose between his dignity and staying with his family, Francie’s father’s warped sense of masculinity leads him to choose the former. As a girl, I shared Francie’s trajectory of first longing for and then being angry with an absent father. As an adult, I feel that ache less acutely now, and as a writer, I appreciate the nuance with which Meriwether has written this character. Francie’s father is at the mercy of the same racist and sexist systems and forces of history that hurt Francie and their community as a whole.
In his foreword, Baldwin remarked that Daddy Was a Number Runner was, to his knowledge, the first of its kind, a book from the point of view of a Black girl. (The book was published the same year as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and the year after Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, both of which I’d read as a teenager.) Meriwether’s novel, Baldwin went on to say, rendered “the helpless intensity of anguish with which one watches one’s childhood disappear.” And, he noted:
At the heart of this book, which gives it its force, is a child’s growing sense of being one of the victims of a collective rape—for history, and especially and emphatically in the black-white arena, is not the past, it is the present.
Meriwether’s story (or rather, Francie’s) took hold of me, and Baldwin’s foreword contextualized it for me. History, I would learn, wasn’t something that happened apart from me. My story, my experiences, belonged to me, and to the centuries-old story of Black girls in this country.
Daddy Was a Number Runner was the first novel I read that was bursting with history, and the best part was, it was my history. Black history beyond static, toothless narratives about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. In the pre-Google era of my childhood, I spent countless hours thumbing through encyclopedias and looking up books in the library’s card catalog to solve the mystery of the real people Meriwether references throughout Francie’s story: the nine Scottsboro boys, ranging in age from twelve to nineteen, falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931; Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, the charismatic Harlem pastor, politician, and civil rights leader; the Yoruba people of West Africa from whom Francie’s father proudly claimed lineage; Father Divine, the controversial spiritual leader; and Marcus Garvey, the Black nationalist who inspired activism among some of Francie’s neighbors. Through them, Meriwether showed me dynamic examples of Black forebears as entrepreneurs, as fighters, as self-determining, as invested in the Ghanaian concept of “Sankofa,” which emphasizes looking back at our roots in order to move forward. Meriwether gave me my first glimpse at how Black folks remember and resist.
In her 1970 review of Daddy Was a Number Runner for the New York Times, novelist Paule Marshall lauds Meriwether’s layered and nuanced depiction of Black life as akin to “what Ralph Ellison once called the marvelous and the terrible.” Some of my favorite parts of the book are the marvelous moments, such as when Francie’s number, 514, hits and her family “collected a fortune, almost three hundred dollars”; when neighbors lend each other a cup of sugar or slice of bread; when all of Harlem pours into the street to Lindy Hop the night Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” knocks out Max Baer; when Francie’s father plays jazz and blues on the piano and the family sings along; when Francie enjoys a delicious fifteen-cent fried chicken dinner in Father Divine’s basement apartment restaurant.
It is a marvelous moment when Francie’s mother assures her at the end of the novel, “One of these days … we gonna move off these mean streets.” But Francie and her brother Sterling are less hopeful. Reading this ending as a kid, I shared their pessimism about their lives, because of the bleak circumstances. But back then I still believed in a happy ending for my own life. I believed that I could grow up, go to college, and live a more materially comfortable life.
At the same time, I understood that there would be limits, dangers. In Daddy Was a Number Runner, the bald white man who assaults Francie is later killed. Francie’s brother James Jr. and some other neighborhood boys are accused of his murder. While James Jr. is eventually freed, two other boys are sentenced to die in the electric chair. My mother called the police after one of the neighborhood drunks sexually harassed me on the street. I was eleven. The cops told my mother there was nothing they could do. This was my first lesson in how Black girls are not promised justice. Because the world does not see us as worthy of protection.
Forty years later, I think of Francie, young-me, and my daughters when the news breaks about Ma’Khia Bryant, age sixteen, who was shot and killed by police in Columbus, Ohio, within hours of Derek Chauvin being convicted for the murder of George Floyd. Repeatedly in the media, Bryant was referred to as a “woman,” and on social media, commenters blamed her for her own death.
I thought of us earlier this year when in Rochester, New York, a body camera video shows officers handcuffing a nine-year-old Black girl’s hands behind her back, and then pepper spraying her when she resists being put in the police car. There’s a point in the video (which I read about but cannot bear to watch) when an officer says, “You’re acting like a child!” The girl replies, “I am a child!”
I thought of us in 2015 when a South Carolina school resource officer wrapped his arm around a teenage Black girl’s neck, dragged her from her desk, and threw across the floor before arresting her. Her crime? “Disturbing the classroom” by taking too long to put her phone away after her teacher asked her to.
I thought of Francie, young-me, and my daughters when journalist Jim DeRogatis concluded, after twenty years of documenting abuse allegations against singer R. Kelly, “The saddest fact I’ve learned is nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”
I will keep coming back to Louise Meriwether’s masterpiece of a novel because in it, she shows us that we do matter. Forty years later, as a reader, I still seek out and prioritize books by and about Black women and girls. I still uplift our stories above all others. When people ask me about writers who inspired me to write my own book—a collection of short stories that centers Black women characters and tells the truth of their lives—I usually credit Toni Morrison and James Baldwin with a nod to their unapologetic centering of Black life, and, in Morrison’s case, centering of free, bold Black women. But it is Meriwether who first planted the seed in me, by writing a novel that centers a Black girl in her own story. Which shouldn’t be a radical thing, but it is.
We are worthy, I hear Meriwether say, and the whole truth of our lives, our dreams, and our struggles, are worthy of a book. We are worthy of protection, care, love, and tenderness. Every day the world lies about us. So every day, we must tell the truth.
Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Story Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Deesha is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and will be the 2022–2023 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.
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