James S. Jackson, beloved elder and a light for Black culture in the field of social psychology, joined the community of Ancestors on 1 September at the age of 76. Jackson understood the need to explore the within-group variability of Black people’s lives and culture rather than relying on simplistic between-group comparisons. His study of Black communities contributed a host of insights into family composition, education, health status and outcomes, aging, violence in the community, religious and spirituality practices, help-giving and help-seeking behaviors, law enforcement and policing, and experiences with racism. He reframed the discourse on people of African descent, giving Black people a voice on Black mental health.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, on 30 July 1944, Jackson completed his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Michigan State University in 1966, his master’s degree in psychology at the University of Toledo in 1970, and his Ph.D. in social psychology at Wayne State University in 1972. He then began his long career at the University of Michigan, from which he retired last year as a professor of psychology, professor of Afro-American and African studies, and director and research professor at the university’s Institute for Social Research. His career included several stints on governmental advisory boards, including a position on the advisory council to the director of the National Institutes of Health.
In an effort to shed light on a group that was mischaracterized in the research and theories being presented at the time, Jackson established the Program for Research on Black Americans in 1976. The following year, he began his groundbreaking National Survey of Black Americans—a dataset that was arguably the largest and most comprehensive study of Black life and culture, as well as behavior patterns, in the country. Jackson’s research methodology helped usher in a more authentic and realistic picture of the Black experience, and his data samples provided the platform for countless investigatory endeavors. His subject samples were not restricted to a hundred students enrolled in an introductory psychology course. Rather, his initiatives penetrated communities across the country, yielding population samples that few could match for their inclusive, decidedly Black diversity. He also challenged the implicit and sometimes explicit bias in university courses and journal editorial review boards that Euro-American norms were the standard against which Black people should be measured and compared. His efforts to create a more self-determined body of research on African American people, independent of their white counterparts, revolutionized research endeavors and data reporting in the 1980s and beyond. His scholarship also helped entire disciplines and a host of researchers understand that there are always multiple factors that explain a given phenomenon.
PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN INSTITUTE FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH
For Jackson, advocacy on behalf of Black Americans extended beyond research. As a graduate student, he was a member of the Black Student Psychological Association, which sought to create a cultural comfort zone for students. Later, he was part of a contingent of Black psychologists who confronted the American Psychological Association about its lack of membership diversity, the standard theoretical models in which Black people were invisible, and the testing and assessment protocols that inaccurately and inappropriately claimed to assess the intellectual capability and psychological stability of African American children and adults.
I considered Jackson my respected elder, an mzee, as those of us of African descent refer to those whom we hold in high esteem. I first encountered him on the pages of my textbooks. Any student of psychology with an interest in persons of African descent knew that Jackson’s work was a must-read. His perspectives were interesting and insightful, his assertions compelling, and his theories comprehensive. I later met him at national meetings of the Association of Black Psychologists and the American Psychological Association. While his presence in the latter was an annual treat, it was his stature in the former that helped me truly understand the scope and impact of his work.
I always appreciated Jackson’s orientation to an African-centered view of reality. Like many Black psychologists of his era, he embraced a strengths-based view of Black culture. This perspective was important, as oftentimes Black life viewed through a Eurocentric lens was assumed to be deficient or pathological because it was different from what white people thought or how they behaved, according to their own psychological experts. And yet, the salience of Jackson’s work, in changing the focus on people of African descent from telephoto to wide-angle, allowed people throughout the country to realize and embrace a more holistic view of Black people’s humanity.
Jackson had a quiet demeanor, a sharp intellect, and keen insight. He was tough-minded when it came to rigorous research questions but tender and empathic when revealing and contextualizing the core of Black people’s life experience. Although he was averse to self-promotion, his work spoke for itself through the impact it had on how Black people perceived themselves and were perceived by others.
Jackson’s awards and honors include his election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the New York Academy of Medicine. He was recognized for outstanding contributions to research in aging by the Gerontological Society of America’s Robert W. Kleemeier Award. In 2014, he was appointed to the National Science Board.
Just as the Sun never truly sets, Jackson’s smile, ideas, and spirit will never truly leave us. His identity, character, and humanity have been indelibly imprinted on those places he traveled during his life, and his contributions have been permanently recorded in the pages of numerous manuscripts, books, scholarly journals, advisory boards, scientific meetings, and conference presentations. His collective works have served as an intellectual solvent, erasing profound misunderstandings and biases about people of African descent and revealing a rich and previously unappreciated cultural tapestry.