Daddy Was a Number Runner

Modern Classic of African American Literature

Daddy was a Number Runner (1970) is the debut novel of Louise Meriwether and is a first-person coming of age narrative. Set in the 1930s, it depicts the lives of the Coffin family through the eyes of 12-year-old Francie. Much of the novel depicts her loving family and her positive relationship with her father, a number runner (i.e. someone who works for an illegal gambling scheme). When the family hits the jackpot, winning $300, it looks as though their lives have turned the corner. However, after two weeks of catching up on bill payments, eating well, and buy replacement clothes, they are worse off than before. The financial hardship that they then experience finally contributes to daddy’s feelings of emasculation as he sees his family obliged to go on relief and mum take on work outside the home, rendering their domestic lives unstructured.  But such has been his positive effect on Francine that when daddy becomes estranged from the family, she goes looking for him ‘at least once a week ‘cause sometimes I got hungry for the sight of him’ p.162.

Although Francine is a somewhat innocent adolescent (not totally informed about the facts of life in the way that her peers seem to be), her experiences are punctuated by the sexual depravity of the ghetto. Here, grocery store owners agree to put items on tick in exchange for a peak or a stroke, some of her male peers are sexually active and predatory, and their siblings are either prostitutes or pimps. Yet, despite this dysfunctionality, there is a sense of community, as new homeless migrants from the south are accommodated as well as possible, and family and neighbours support each other financially and nutritionally. 

Daddy was a Number Runner is an accessible book to read and is an often-neglected modern classic of African American literature.  It has influenced the writings of Paule Marshall.


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