George D. Jackson, 53, sits board straight like a musician before his Howard University class, his back never touching the chair. This barrel-chested man with salt-and-pepper hair, jutting brow, closed eyes and a wide, easy smile lectures steadily and pleasantly without notes for two hours, riveting his students to the subject: the abnormal personality.
Is it normal, he asks the class, for thousands of people to sit glued to television sets watching over and over the horror scenes of the Air Florida Flight 90 crash knowing there will be no more "new" news that night?
"What would you think . . . does that represent pathology or is it healthy?" he asks.
"All right. We will not resolve that problem," he concedes after a brief discussion. "I raise it for you to ponder. Please do not make any assumptions about my own view of it."
Please do not make any assumptions about George Jackson, professsor of psychology at Howard's School of Social Work. Attempts to categorize him are quickly overwhelmed by the facts.
Blind since age 5, Jackson overcame his loss of sight and has become an educator, administrator, clinical psychologist, professional musician and political activist. He has been a dean of academic affairs, a prison psychologist, a medical college administrator and founder of a black studies institute.
A list of his achievements makes it clear he is not content to follow customary paths. Last spring, Jackson was one of the recipients of Howard University's Distinguished Faculty awards.
Born with glaucoma, Jackson was raised in Montclair, N.J., where the state provided music lessons for visually impaired children. But his parents encouraged his independence and in high school he became determined to be a psychologist. Jackson graduated from Rutgers University and earned both a master's and a doctorate degree in psychology from New York University.
Besides teaching, Jackson also maintains a clinical practice as a psychologist. And until he gave it up last year, he was a professional musician. He played jazz saxophone in clubs in and around his native Montclair. On the club circuit he is known as "Downbeat" Jackson. He still tries to get a little playing in every morning.
The Distinguished Faculty award honors Jackson primarily for his community activities. Until recently, he was national chairman of the Association of Black Psycholgists and since 1975 has headed its political action committee. He has testified as an expert witness in court and also before Congress. The issue that concerns him most is what he sees as the delicate complexity of psychological, academic and industrial testing of blacks and the danger that standardized tests pose to minorities. Jackson also served as cochairman of the subcommittee on mental health for Mayor Marion Barry's transition team.
At Howard, Jackson is much praised by his students and dean. "He has an astonishing command of his subject," said Trevor Walford, a social worker at the housing authority of Baltimore City. "He can come in and lecture almost three hours without a note. He has a magnificent memory."
Jay Chunn, dean of Howard's School of Social Work, said he appreciates Jackson's special sensitivity to black psychological issues. "He can interpret the impact of society on blacks and other minorities from a psychological perspective," Chunn explained. "He can make adjustments in classical Freudian theory and make it relevant to the patients his students will be seeing."
The feeling is mutual. After years of studying, teaching and administering in white institutions, Jackson welcomes the opportunity to teach at a black university.
"I've always felt that black instructors of higher education have played a special role in development of black scholarship and black talent. . . . Despite the meager resources, black educational institutions have played a tremendous role and I've always felt every black scholar owes some allegiance to this enterprise."
The administration at Howard, Jackson said, went out of its way to see that he had the extra help he needs--assistants to grade papers, proctor exams and help him get around campus. No other faculty member, Jackson said, has ever expressed displeasure at this special help. "This is not like what I saw at white institutions" where special help was always a bone of contention, Jackson said. "At Howard . . . I would say that I have been judged less because of my handicap. . . . It was always a factor in white institutions. See, all the people here are handicapped. Blindness is a handicap in this country, but a bigger handicap in this country is being black. So maybe because we're all handicapped, (the administration has) been willing to give more humanism than you get in white institutions."
Though his strong views about being black and handicapped have given direction to his life, Jackson has always cultivated a saving sense of humor.
Last summer he broke his ankle roller skating. He came back to teach on crutches and soon heard this snatch of conversation between two students:
"What's he doing skating. Don't he know he can't see?"
"That's the wrong issue. It ain't got nothing to do with whether he can see. He's too damn old to be skating."
Jackson laughs uproariously. "You've got to be able to take these things that happen to you and you've got to find the joy and humor in them."