Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Jenkins

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Daddy Was a Number Runner Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Daddy Was a Number Runner is a coming-of-age novel set in Harlem during the depths of the Depression, a psychological story placed in a historically specific setting. First published as a short story in 1967, it was developed by author Louise Meriwether into a novel three years later. Francie Coffin faces the struggles of any adolescent girl poised on the brink of womanhood, but the challenges to her initiation in this setting are almost overwhelming. Her family is loving but about to disintegrate, and the streets outside her Harlem apartment are filled with violence and sexual abuse, police brutality and social protest. It is no easy task growing up in this environment, and Francie’s narration—thin on plot but larded with naturalistic incidents—spares none of her difficulties.

Francie is in her first year of junior high school at P.S. 81, “one of the worse girls’ schools in Harlem,” where gangs of girls intimidate the weaker teachers, and where Francie reads trashy romances through her classes. Yet, she has—at least at the beginning—what few others here have, a whole and loving family, which may account for many of the strengths she possesses or acquires. (She is always reading on her own, for example, the works of such writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Claude McKay.) Her family lives on the edge of poverty, however, and Francie sleeps on a couch in the front room; the couch is pulled away from the wall every night so that the bed bugs will not get her (they do anyway). This is a gritty but powerful novel of survival.

The Coffins were happier a few years earlier living in Brooklyn, Francie says, but they moved to Harlem so that her father could get painting work; soon after, the bottom fell out of the economy. Francie’s father does everything he can to keep the family together: He works as a janitor in their building, plays piano at “rent” parties, and plays poker at night to earn more money. He is also a numbers runner for his neighborhood (in an industry controlled by Dutch Schultz and the mob). He also plays the numbers, however, and every “hit” he makes seems to drain back into the game—a metaphor for the economic life of Harlem itself. Francie’s is a realistic Harlem world of King Kong (homemade gin) and “jumpers” (wires that allow families to bypass the electric meter), of crime and exploitation.

Mr. Coffin’s pride forces him to oppose welfare, and when he finally gives into his wife’s demands, he is further humiliated by the welfare worker. Mrs. Coffin gets part-time work, again against her husband’s wishes, but the pressures on the family crest when James Junior is arrested, along with other members of the Ebony Earls street gang, for the murder of a white man. James Junior is innocent and is eventually freed, but the economic and psychological pressures on the family are too much: James Junior leaves school to go to work for Alfred the pimp; his younger brother Sterling (who has been the academic pride of the family) soon follows; and Mr. Coffin starts staying away every night at Mrs. Mackey’s, as Francie soon discovers.

The novel describes these events without the tragic tone they might betray in another work, for its main focus remains on Francie as she struggles to achieve her sexual identity. If the obstacles to her initiation are enormous, her resilience and strength finally prevail. “Francie, you can beat anything, anybody, if you face up to it and you’re not scared,” her mother tells her early in the novel, and by the end Francie has proven this prophecy true.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story opens during a school lunch break, with eleven-year-old Francie collecting number slips for her father; it ends with her father released from jail after being arrested by the police trying to show some power in this mob-controlled neighborhood. Between those two incidents, readers are granted a detailed and revealing look into the naturalistic world of one family’s struggles to survive, and a...

(The entire section is 1,086 words.)