(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)....

(The entire section is 618 words.)


(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 prepubescent girl’s struggle for her own identity.

The major details of the story circle around the numbers racket that permeates the community. Everyone plays and everyone dreams of the big win that will get them out of this world. When Francie’s number 514—a number based on her dream of a catfish—pays off $215, the family eats well for about a week, but as Francie notes, they soon are back to fried cabbage and ham hocks just as if the big hit had never happened.

Francie’s journey toward adulthood is given in terms of this numbers game. Although only eleven years of age, she is responsible enough to collect the number slips and take them home to hide in a buffet drawer. When the police raid her railroad flat after the big win, they do not find the receipts they need for an arrest, but they take Daddy off anyway, charged with assault and battery for protecting Francie. She takes the numbers downstairs to Frenchy, the local agent for Big Dutch, and tells him that her father has been arrested. In this crisis, Francie demonstrates her...

(The entire section is 468 words.)