Exactly forty years ago, the Feminist Press republished Daddy
Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether, allowing me forever after to call myself Louise’s publisher as well as her friend. I was betting on a winner. In 1970, when it was first published, Publisher’s Weekly said the novel “breathes reality and heartbreak…A rough, tender, bitter novel of a black girl struggling towards womanhood and survival.” Paule Marshall, who reviewed the novel in 1970, praised the novel’s “vitality and force behind the despair.” She continues, “It celebrates the positive values of the black experience: the tenderness and love that often underlie the abrasive surface of relationships…the humor that has long been an important part of the black survival kit, and the heroism of ordinary folk.”
As publisher, I was smart enough to include a short essay by James Baldwin, also published in 1970. He writes: “We have seen this life from the point of view of a black boy growing [up]…[but] I don’t know that we have ever seen it from the point of view of a black girl on the edge of a terrifying womanhood.”
I also decided to invite the black critic and professor, Nellie McKay, who was at the University of Wisconsin, to write an Afterword. It, too, is worth the price of admission. (And it’s one of the great pieces of criticism we have from Nellie, who died young of pancreatic cancer.) Nellie McKay sees the novel not only as “well-crafted,” but also as “captur[ing] the essence of a historical time and place in the experience of black people.” She sees the book as a “tribute to poor, uneducated, black women, who, through centuries of watching their men being ground down by poverty and racism, continue to live each day with the assurance that conditions will improve. Expecting little for themselves, not from lack of self-worth, but because they understand the politics of race, gender, economics, and power, they scrub floors, wash windows, and absorb racist and sexist insults, so that their children can have better lives than their own.”
When the twelve-year old Francie says she wants to be a secretary, her teacher tells her that she should be setting her sights towards cooking, sewing, or domestic work. Francie has not seen a black secretary or teacher, but the novel makes clear that she sees sex workers, the daughters of neighbors, on the street daily. One more note about this novel that I believe all of you should read, especially if you are concerned about the sexual abuse of children. This is a fact of life Francie has to deal with every day, not only from perverts who follow her into the movies or onto the roof of her building, but even from an occasional Jewish merchant. No, this child does not tell her parents. Somehow she suspects that telling them would result in catastrophe for the family. Somehow, she knows that she must deal with the abuse through wit and ultimately with the aid of a strong kick, and in the novel, she knows that other girls her age do as well.
Still, how can I claim this is a comic novel, and one that will hearten your belief in the strength of humankind, in the strength of what Louise calls, as the subtitle of the novel, “Yoruba’s children?” The sharing from family to family, and from those that have to those that don’t; the grief expressed not only for one’s family but for one’s neighbors; and the strength of all who can sometimes find it possible to laugh rather than cry over their losses. One person who helps Francie’s family is her mother’s sister, who is unmarried and hence could independently decide to take full time employment as a domestic in a white family. She uses some of her money to help her sister and to treat her children when they come to see her. She certainly brightens Francie’s days from time to time.
(Reading the novel again this weekend, I was reminded of my father’s asking me many times about whether I had dreamed a number the night before, and at least once or twice I could remember giving him one and feeling very excited about it. Though I didn’t understand what the dream had to do with anything, I heard my mother’s crying when my father arrived with very little cash, having lost his money on an unlucky number. And I remember also the time he could pull off a $100 dollar bill to pay for a coat he wanted to buy me for my thirteenth birthday.)
I want to conclude by mentioning a screen play Louise has written that would make a fine film. Perhaps there is someone here who has the clout to look at that. And of course there is Louise’s new work. At 90 she began to write a new novel and though I’ve not seen any of it yet, I’m betting on her. She is my role model, and if you are looking for a role model, I may be willing, in the spirit of Francie’s family and other members of Yoruba’s children, to share her with you.