The Fire This Time

by Jesmyn Ward

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“Composite Pops” by Mitchell S. Jackson Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1353

While mothers receive most of the recognition and reverence in African American culture, “Mitch” Jackson asserts the irrefutable need of Black boys for fatherly influences. As a father of a daughter, he understands that his wife is often better equipped to guide their daughter. And as someone who grew up without a single, constant paternal presence, Jackson believes it’s the same for his son, whom Jackson will teach how to “navigate” his life as a Black man.

Jackson’s life has taught him that a boy’s need can be fulfilled by the presence of various “fatherish” influences who “compose” a father in the absence of one full-time dad. Jackson was born when his mother was nineteen, and though his biological father lived close by, he was absent for the first ten years of Jackson’s life. Even so, Jackson never felt the absence, because he created a father for himself out of a number of men to whom he was close, much as Barack Obama did growing up.

Jackson’s “pops” was composed of his mother’s boyfriend Big Chris; his maternal grandfather, Sam; his maternal uncle Anthony; his paternal uncle Henry; and eventually, his biological father, Wesley. This group of influences provided a loving example of manhood for Jackson, teaching, nurturing, and inspiring him.

Big Chris was a paroled bank robber and street hustler who swept Jackson’s mother off her feet and had two children with her. They stayed together for several years, and even after Big Chris left, he would regularly drop by to visit his sons and try to rekindle the romance, never treating Jackson any differently than his own flesh and blood. While others might criticize Big Chris’s way of making a living, it was from him that Jackson learned that the importance of a man’s influence in a boy’s life had “nothing to do with genetics.” When Jackson heard from his sister in Phoenix that Big Chris was dying, he made plans to visit as soon as possible, but by the time he landed and deplaned, Big Chris had already died. When Jackson’s sister picked him up at the airport, she consoled him by sharing Big Chris’s last words about needing to hold on long enough for Mitch to arrive, confirming the father-son bond that the two had shared.

Jackson’s maternal grandfather, Sam, worked the same job for thirty years, owns the house he’s lived in for even longer, attends church and neighborhood activities regularly, and was always there to support Jackson’s mother and family when Jackson was young. Granddad Sam attended all of Jackson’s basketball games and gave him chores to do so he could earn money to hang out with his friends on the weekends, not once complaining about having to take care of his grandson. Sam showed Jackson how to be a “stand-up dude,” humbly committed to his family and community without expecting praise or reward.

Jackson’s maternal uncle Anthony, known as “Ant,” was a former high school track star whose “almost All-American status” was legendary in the family. In sixth grade, the one year Jackson competed on the track team, Ant came to his meets and gave him pointers to improve, teaching him that anything is possible with faith and technique. When Jackson was finally able to defeat his season-long rival, Ant was as proud and happy as if it had been the Olympics. Through Ant, Jackson got to taste the thrill of championship and learn that with confidence and hard work, anything is possible. Ant’s being able to take pleasure in teaching Jackson to be stronger, faster, and better than he himself had been...

(This entire section contains 1353 words.)

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showed his unconditional love for Jackson.

Jackson didn’t know his paternal uncle Henry during the drug kingpin days that landed Henry in prison, when the newspaper labelled him “Oregon’s biggest dope dealer.” A lifetime criminal and addict, Henry had made enough money for a Rolls Royce and a plane before losing it all. Even after his many years in prison, he never went straight and continued to use drugs while he stayed with other relatives, serving as a kind of street guru for Jackson and his brother in high school, when they started dealing, too. Henry taught them that the “fast nickel beats the slow twenty,” meaning that there is more small money to be made in the moment than there is in waiting around for a bigger sale. Far from being a corrupting influence on his nephews’ youths and futures, Henry’s sharing this proven wisdom of the street was his way of equipping them with a vital lesson “to reimagine paths to success,” without which they were “destined to be failed black men.”

Soon after meeting his biological father, Wesley, when Mitch was ten, he joined Wesley’s wife and other children on a Southern California road trip. At the pool in a relative’s apartment complex, all the other kids went in the water with their father and had a wonderful time playing and splashing, while Jackson stayed dry, protecting both his Michael Jackson–style hairdo and his wounded pride, as he didn’t know how to swim. Unwilling to let his young son avoid confronting his fear and ego, Wesley scooped up Mitch and tossed him flailing into the pool. Jackson was able to stay in the pool that day, keeping his head above the water and having fun with his siblings. The lesson Wesley taught Jackson was that regardless of how rough the waters, Jackson needed to learn to swim, because Wesley wouldn’t always be there to save him from drowning. Jackson is now grateful for this “stern beneficence.”

Fathers teach their sons “how to live,” Jackson writes, and their role should be always evolving and “rooted in love.” His composite fathers’ imperfections allow Jackson to accept his own flaws and the things he’s learned about himself over the years. He also knows that now that he is a father, his “pops” are encouraging him to do an even better job than they did.


Mitchell S. Jackson’s funny, touching, and exuberant essay makes sure to give the institution of Black fatherhood its due praise and respect. While some of the other authors reference their fathers, as Clint Smith’s poem and Jesmyn Ward’s essay do, and a number of others mention grandfathers, Jackson’s is unique in its focus on the necessity of paternal influence in the lives of Black boys. In that regard, Jackson’s essay is a kind of corollary to Claudia Rankine’s examination of the state of Black motherhood and Kiese Laymon’s tribute to the generational continuum of Southern Black influence. Like them, this essay reflects the “Reckoning” section’s central purpose in its offering perspective on the contemporary Black condition and has as its purpose the attempt to reclaim the category of Black fatherhood from its problematic reputation.

The statistical trend for several decades has been that the majority of African American families are headed by a single parent, predominantly a mother, as mass incarceration continues to disproportionately affect Black men. In his essay, Jackson recalls learning drug-dealing tips from his uncle and proudly asserts his own “hustler” nature, and his sympathetic, warm portrayals of Big Chris and Henry, lifelong criminals, suggest that their checkered pasts are incidental compared to their love, loyalty, and other exemplary human qualities.

Kevin Young notes in his essay “Blacker Than Thou” that Black people are uniquely welcoming and nonjudgmental when it comes to others and their differences, and Jackson illustrates this in his refusal to criticize the motives of his biological father, Wesley, for abandoning Jackson and his mother. As a father himself, Jackson seems to have learned to accept his father’s shortcomings and reasons for leaving, and he appreciates Wesley’s positive contributions rather than lamenting the effects of his absence—likely because he had men like Big Chris and his uncles to fill the void and show him what it means to be a man and a father.


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