|Mondo Bizarro||Jan 9 2020|
Above you see the cover of Old Aunt Dinah's Dream Book of Numbers. We've already talked about Gene Bilbrew's covers for 1970s dream books. We're revisiting the subject today to give you this additional look at his work, but also to take a historical angle on his specifically African American art. Playing daily numbers was an African American invention, part of an underground economy that flourished in many large cities, but reached its apotheosis in Harlem.
It's impossible to know when playing the numbers began—certainly long before the turn of the twentieth century—but the practice took off during the 1920s when a black West Indian man named Casper Holstein began using bank-to-bank transaction data published in New York City papers as the selection mechanism for his daily numbers. Previously, numbers had been chosen in various unreliable ways, but Holstein's innovation placed the selection of numbers in public view, removed any suggestion of corruption, and as a result Harlem's daily lottery thrived.
Which is exactly why the city of New York decided to take it over in 1980, a coup it managed in part by promising to use a portion of the numbers revenue toward public education costs. And of course, proving once again that politicians are the lowest creatures that ever crawled from beneath slime covered logs in miasmic swamps, the city then cut its contributions to the education budget so there was ultimately no net gain for schools, while profits were neatly excised from the black community.
Old Aunt Dinah's Dream Book of Numbers is the third dream book illustrated by Bilbrew we've shared. We're fascinated by the exotic, made-up personae on the covers. The idea of gypsies, Arabs, creoles, Asians, or very old people somehow tapping into mystical power thrived in pulp fiction, early movies, cartoons, and, as you see, even on the covers of dream books. Old Aunt Dinah is our favorite dream book invention, but the characters Madame Zodia and Princess Shaharr—the latter of whom we'll show you later—are close runners up.
For those who don't know what books like these are about exactly, we explained that in our typically roundabout way in previous write-ups, here and here. Shorter version: Dream until your dreams come true. We already have a couple more to share, and we'll keep an eye out for others. And of course we'll continue to be on the lookout for paperback art by Gene Bilbrew. You can see what he's about by clicking this link.