Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The themes of Daddy Was a Number Runner fall conveniently into three ever-enlarging circles of meaning: from self to family to community. The central meaning of the novel is Francie’s initiation into womanhood, and it is no easy journey. “Finally it was summer and I was thirteen,” she declares toward the end of her story—but she also realizes she is “stuck here in my black valley” where “nothing was too much fun anymore.”

On one level, the whole novel is about sexual roles and behavior, for sex pervades this novel more than most about adolescence. It is a violent sexual world that Francie inhabits: She is fondled by Mr. Morristein the butcher, by Max the baker, by men on the roof of her building and by men in the park, and other men expose themselves to her or offer to pay to touch her. Everywhere Francie goes, she encounters this sexual abuse. (Her own sexual awakening actually occurs when she is being molested in a darkened theater.) By the end of the novel, though, she has overcome the abuse: She knees Max the baker, and thus symbolically ends the sexual exploitation.

This character or identity she gains in part from her family, from her mother and father and her two brothers. Daddy Was a Number Runner is a historically accurate portrait of the Depression-era black family, in all its strengths and weaknesses. The author shows all the pressures that bear on this institution, and by the book’s end, Francie recognizes how many black males are gone: dead, in prison, or (like her father) escaped. It is the women,...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Louise Meriwether’s story works on two distinct levels, the social and the psychological. Its social themes revolve around what it is like to grow up black in New York during the Depression, and the story relates that condition in a broad array of details. Meriwether reveals the socioeconomic conditions—the couch in the living room where Francie sleeps, infested by bed bugs; the educational—Francie’s school, P.S. 136, “the baddest girls’ school in the world”; and the cultural—the numbers racket, music, food, and so on. Depression-era Harlem life is shown in all its difficulties and violence, with few pleasures. It is a complex and accurate portrait: The Ebony Dukes jump the Jewish boys who attend the synagogue around the corner, but Francie’s dining room furniture is a gift from the Jewish plumber downstairs. Meriwether’s is no simplistic portrait of urban life and strife.

More significant than the social meaning of the story is the psychological, and this is far more subtle, for the eleven-year-old narrator does not always understand the significance of her own life. Like her slightly older fictional cousin, Huck Finn—likewise a first-person narrator of his own adventures—Francie relates incidents that readers must interpret. She wonders what makes her friend Sukie so mean, for example—but Meriwether gives readers all the evidence they need to make the analysis of Sukie’s behavior themselves. Francie cannot articulate the...

(The entire section is 600 words.)