The Writing Life: Professor Bridgett Davis Pens the Screenplay for Her Memoir: The World According to Fannie Davis
October 14, 2020
This spring, amid the coronavirus lockdown, Professor Bridgett Davis received the unexpected news that her acclaimed 2019 memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers, would be adapted for a feature film, and that she would serve as screenwriter on the project. That, of course, meant a summer devoted to writing.
“It’s a challenge to think about what to keep in and what to take out as I craft this adaptation, but it’s equally enlightening,” Davis said. “I’m seeing my own story through new eyes.”
Professor Davis’ award-winning memoir chronicles how her mother, Fannie Davis, carved out a middle-class existence for her family through her role in the Numbers, which flourished underground in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s. The Numbers business was a precursor to state-run lotteries and helped propel Davis and her siblings solidly into the middle class.
Professor Davis, who is working closely on the script with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, said “if all goes as planned, I’ll have a completed screenplay by the end of the year.”
As professor of journalism and creative writing at Baruch’s Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, she is teaching a full course load this semester, including a memoir writing course as part of the CUNY Graduate Center’s M.A. Program in Biography and Memoir.
Her memoir was selected among 18 books as Baruch’s First-Year Text, and she was also a featured speaker at the virtual Fall 2020 Student Convocation. Professor Davis is also working on a book of essays about loss.
An Interview with Professor Bridgett Davis
Congratulations on your book being optioned for a feature film.
Bridgett Davis: I’m excited that this story will reach a wide audience, illuminating the ingenuity of black folks like my mother, who always believed she too was entitled to the American Dream.
What is the wider significance of your book?
Bridgett Davis: This memoir about my family is, I believe, a timely referendum on the racial issues that have continued to impact African-American lives for hundreds of years. Playing the Numbers constituted an underground economy in the Black community that helped my family and many, many others realize a middle-class life.
Millions of African-Americans migrated from the racist south, like my family from Tennessee, to create what they called ‘a way out of no way.’ However, when they arrived in urban cities, they were confronted with an equally virulent Northern racism, which restricted their access to good jobs, or even steady employment.
What is the significance of your memoir being read by incoming, first-year students?
Bridgett Davis: I’m honored that my memoir was selected, in part because it’s apparently the first time a Baruch professor’s book has been selected. So it’s always nice to be first. Most of all, I believe given the moment we’re in, given the country’s renewed interest in racial justice, my mother’s story is a timely one. Her life is an illustration, a personal embodiment of what black Americans have struggled against and rise above to simply pursue the happiness promised to all citizens by the Declaration of Independence.
How do you see the relevance of your mother’s story – your family story – to the Black Lives Matter movement?
Bridgett Davis: The Black Lives Matter Movement is part of a continuum of black liberation efforts that have existed as long as this country has existed, as far back as 1619, when Africans were first brought to this country as slaves. Throughout history, these movements have all been about the same thing: Asserting black humanity. Back in the ’60s, the rallying cry was ‘Black Is Beautiful’, which was an attempt to push back against this society’s negation of our value as black people. My mother’s story, and my family’s story by extension, is one of push back, and assertion. Every choice she made, every risk she took, every position she held, every fight she fought were all toward the same goal: To assert that her life and her children’s lives mattered.
Most importantly, she made sure through her defense of me, through her support of me, through her protection of me, that black girls’ lives mattered. This was a radical concept because it flew in the face of what the culture projected and valued.
How is your story, your mother’s story, relevant to today’s times?
Bridgett Davis: My story is timeless, because Black Americans still fight for true equality, and all that my mom contended with, the line of work she felt compelled to choose, the arbitrary racist roadblocks placed before her, all that she sacrificed in an effort to overcome speak to one clear fact: African-Americans have been robbed of our fair share, and we are owed.
My story’s relevance to Baruch students is in its familiarity; just as many immigrants once engaged in the Numbers or other underground businesses to get an economic foothold in this country like my family did, today’s upwardly mobile families also engage in “stepping stone” vocations and jobs so that their own children can do better. Baruch students are those children doing better, using CUNY as their engine of mobility.
Your Student Convocation address echoed those themes.
Bridget Davis: I believe there is a commonality between myself and many members of Baruch’s freshman class: Coming from a working-class family and becoming a first-generation college student, and all the ways that education changed my life. My mother worked as hard as she did to ensure that I receive that education and the opportunities that came with it; she understood the fundamental importance of my possessing a college degree. She often said of her life in the Numbers: “I’m doing this so you don’t have to.”
What words of wisdom and inspiration do you have for first-year students in this moment?
Bridgett Davis: My mother’s story is a blueprint for how to live a good life – the kind of life that someone will someday want to write a book about, not because you’re famous, but simply because of who you are and the impact your life had on others.
I want to share the key lessons I learned from my mother: to live with integrity even when you face hardship and challenges, to figure out how to make a way out of no way that doesn’t compromise your values, and to help others along the way.
I want students to know that even a first-generation college student – as I was and as many Baruch freshmen are –has the capacity, and yes the responsibility, to do more than get yours. You have to speak up and speak out, in your own way, in the face of injustice. Know that success and integrity can co-exist. My mother’s life, and the life she made possible for me, are proof of that.
The World According To Fannie Davis has racked up several honors, including recognition as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a 2020 Michigan Notable Book, and Best Book of 2019 by Kirkus Reviews, BuzzFeed, NBC News, and Parade magazine. Professor Davis’ non-fiction essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Millions, Real Simple, the LA Times, Salon, and O, Oprah magazine.
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