I walked into the first class I took with Michael Sawyer thinking that I would escape the traditional Western “canon” and read authors other than dead white guys for once. The class was about Ralph Ellison’s novel reflecting on blackness, “Invisible Man.” But somehow, I also found myself reading a novel by Herman Melville and watching the sci-fi film “Ex Machina.” The purpose of these assignments was to connect the philosophy of black subjectivity to artificial intelligence. It might sound absurd, but Sawyer weaved it all together seamlessly. This is a typical Michael Sawyer experience.
Sawyer is able to tie together countless disciplines in part because he has an almost alarming number of degrees: a bachelor’s degree in political science and aerospace engineering from the Naval Academy, a master of arts from the University of Chicago’s Committee of International Relations and International Security Policy, a master’s in French and German comparative literature from Brown University, and a PhD in Africana studies from Brown University. Now, Sawyer is a Professor of Race, Ethnicity and Migration Studies at Colorado College—and unsurprisingly, uses ideas from nearly every other academic discipline. Last spring, he was awarded CC’s Lloyd E. Worner teaching award.
Here, Sawyer gives us a look into how exactly he got here, and what it all means.
Maya Day: You’ve had quite an unconventional career and academic path. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Michael Sawyer: Yeah. I have a hard time holding down a job. I went to the Naval Academy, so the requirement is just like it is at the Air Force, where you have to be a naval officer for a period of time. I was a cryptologist in the Navy, and I worked in counter-terrorism, primarily. And then I worked at the National Security Agency for a little while—while I was still in the Navy. When I got out, I came back home to Chicago and I started working at Bear Sterns at the fixed income department.
I spent almost a decade and a half working at Bear Sterns, then JP Morgan, and then I was running the sovereign fund for the President of the Gabonese Republic. That all came to a halt when President Bongo passed. Working at Wall Street, I was in an emerging market, so I got to see a lot of things. I spent a lot of time traveling in Africa and the Middle East and these kinds of places, so I was able to see many things up close that interest me from a perspective of revolutionary thought and its relationship to capital and social justice. Then I went back to school. Somehow, I got accepted into this PhD program at Brown. I wanted to work at a small liberal arts college, so that was the goal of coming back.
To other people it seems pretty strange. But to me, it all fits together; it all makes sense in this weird kind of way.
MD: Did you have any ethical qualms with being in finance, or the military?
MS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a profoundly unethical business—both places. I was in the Navy during the First Gulf War, in Somalia, and these kinds of places. Being someone who was curious about the role of the United States as an imperial and colonial power, I got to see that up close and personal—and from a perspective of being this representative of “the Other.” I’m from inner-city Chicago, so seeing both the environment and the people who were typically in the Navy were all very different experiences for me.
Then Wall Street—what I knew about the way most people who work on Wall Street was zero from the way I grew up. In any profession, there should be ethical concerns, but Wall Street is particularly difficult—just like being in the armed forces was particularly difficult—because what Wall Street is about is producing money. That’s what the job is. You can do that ethically, but the environment around you is very difficult to find your way around and be comfortable in, socially and intellectually and ethically.
MD: What was your reasoning behind switching from finance to academia?
MS: I went to a Jesuit high school, and I had a couple of teachers that were really important to me when I look back on it. They seemed like pains in the neck at the time. Brother McKaid was this Dominican monk. He was a Kantian. He studied Kant really closely. My first track coach in high school was a Jesuit priest who had two PhDs—one in physics and one in philosophy. This is what Jesuits do. This is when I was a teenager, so we would have these conversations; they would ask me these questions, and then send me off to read stuff, and I would read it, so I never really stopped reading philosophy and theory, my entire life. I would be sitting around reading Kant’s “Critique of Judgment,” and I didn’t have to. No one was forcing me to do it.
Coming from the Naval Academy, where I studied engineering and political science, I didn’t really know there was such a thing as philosophy. I wasn’t really aware where professors came from until relatively long after I got out of college. So I never really thought about it like that. But I was reading and thinking about these things anyway, so when I decided to go to graduate school, it was more of a realization of the spaces and places where other people were doing the same kind of thing. It was a comfortable environment for me.
There was a time, I remember specifically, when I read nothing but Wall Street documents for a couple of years. I went back and tried to read “Macbeth,” which I really enjoy, and I was having a really difficult time. I was like, this has to stop. I had to go back to reading because I had become stupid in particular ways, because I was only reading documents in a particular way, not exercising my mental capacity.
So, long story short, I never had a job that seemed like work to me. I’m never like “Oh, man gotta go to work.” When I was in the Navy it didn’t happen and when I was at Wall Street it didn’t happen. I’ve been fortunate to be able to move from one thing to the next without there being these difficult points of transition, so that’s really been a blessing. That’s really been based upon what my parents did by sending me and my brother to that private school, because in the place we grew up, the schools were awful. So that’s attributable to them, more than any kind of my own aptitude.
MD: What’s the craziest thing you’ve had to deal with in each of your jobs?
MS: Let’s think. Wow. When I was in the Navy I was a cryptologist, so my job was collecting signals intelligence from the ground, so I’ve ended up in some very weird places. I was in Mauritania a couple times, which was like, “What am I doing?” Somalia was particularly difficult because it’s this state that’s falling apart and there’s this presence of warlords and this poorly designed relationship with American imperial power—trying to “assist” these people to establish a nation-state is crazy in a lot of ways. I was ready to go home.
Then, working on Wall Street it’s just every day. You look back and just can’t believe what was going on because, you know, a lot of this stuff is a culture in itself. So once you introduce yourself to it at a particular place and time, you see and hear things you can’t imagine, being a person who is self-consciously and self-referentially black. I was in a meeting with the people who run the largest hedge funds on earth, before the mortgage crisis, and literally the CEO did not know that mortgages under $250,000 were anything except investment vehicles. Like, he literally believed people were only getting mortgages for a quarter of a million dollars as some type of investment stunt because they just didn’t want to spend their cash on the house. I was sitting there… like I can’t believe I’m listening to this person who thinks there’s a 0% chance of default from mortgages under $250,000 because he thinks everybody’s got at least $250,000 in their bank account. I just found that to be completely insane. That was kind of wild.
And every day at CC is crazy. The thing at CC is that you never know what’s going to happen once you start a block.
MD: I’ve noticed that in your classes, you often use “traditional” canonical thinkers such as Hegel and Melville, but you often use them to build upon radical ideas that fracture the canon in which they exist. What is your stance on having students read traditional texts, especially in a time in academia that is against reading “dead white guys”?
MS: You make it sound like taking medicine, right? I have this conversation a lot, because every block or so, a student comes to me from some other department and they’re like, “I’m tired of reading dead white people. I wanna focus on African American literature.” And I’ll say, “That’s great, but you’re going to have to have that canon under your belt in order to understand what someone like Toni Morrison is doing.” Morrison is a classicist, and I don’t have to say it, she’s said it herself. I mean, she can’t live without Melville, Shakespeare, and Faulkner. This is one of the mysteries of the African diaspora. Those similarly situated are always working in an oppositional environment, so when we develop literature or philosophy or theory or art, it’s within a context and, to an extent, that context is a particular mélange of social forces that has been pushed onto these bodies.
So if you’re a person who’s pushing on the canon to transgress it, you probably ought know what its four corners are. I don’t want to be running around thinking that I’m saying something innovative when I’m like, “Democracy is a way to subjugate people,” and think that I’m saying that, when Plato said it. So out of Rousseau’s “The Social Contract,” we’re able to understand where oppression comes from, and then we can understand the ways in which to develop technologies or thinking to push against this.
So I’m completely resistant to “dismantle the canon.” My question is more how to expand the canon. There’s no reason why Fanon shouldn’t be read in philosophy departments, political theory departments, psychology departments, and not just in a race and ethnicity department. I don’t think you can read Fanon and not understand his close reading of Hegel or Heidegger or Merleau-Ponty or Sartre or Kant or Freud. To the extent that you don’t know that, your reading is going to be deprived in certain ways. It’s almost as if reading these “dead white people” is framed as this kind of Vulcan mind control, as if then you’re not able to think about yourself in any other way. I think we’re smarter than that.
MD: Going off that, do you think that your role here as a professor is different due to you being black and from an underrepresented background?
MS: Absolutely. Anybody who pretends that’s not true is not telling you the truth. It’s a complex thing, because at the same time that the demographics of students have been changing at Colorado College, the demographics of faculty, administration, and staff are also altering. So many of the struggles and points of discomfort that students feel, faculty feel at the same time.
I view myself as being in the position of protecting students, academically and socially, as best I can. I’m not here to be the counselling department, but I am here to kind of introduce them to a particular type of education: what does it mean to exist in this world in this way, embodied in the way that you are? Whether it’s race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or gender, there are going to be forces that you’re going to have to learn how to resolve, and some of that comes from reading things and learning what they are, but you also have to develop a way to protect yourself at the same time. So these are very complex conversations, and as a black male professor at a predominately white institution, you have a particular role. The same would go for any professor that represents an underrepresented group.
MD: I heard that you’re working on something with H. Rap Brown [a former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when it was allied with the Black Panther Party].
MS: Yeah. When I was in grad school, I was working on my dissertation, and I got to this point where I was thinking carefully about black radical thought post-Malcolm X, as it relates to Fanon. H. Rap Brown—he’s changed his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin—is a theorist of radical black thought, so I wrote him a letter while he was in federal prison and he wrote back. So we’ve been doing this long conversation talking back and forth. Then I got this call one night. It was like, “it’s H. Rap Brown on the phone,” so we just talked for a little while. You can’t call him, so you write and wait to hear back. It’s difficult because he’s doing life in prison for the attempted murder of two police officers in Georgia.
What we’ve been working on together is a series of reflections on Malcolm X. I’m trying to be careful to preserve his access to his rights because he’s ill—he’s terminally ill with cancer—so I don’t want him to lose his last relationship he has to speak to people outside of prison by asking questions that could have him censored or thrown off. The only reason he’s in federal prison as opposed to state prison in Georgia is because the Georgia prison official determined that he would be—at 70 or 80 years old—too controversial for the states. Only the federal government could potentially keep control over what he’s doing. So, it’s an interesting interaction.
The working title of the project is “The Book of the New School (H.) Rap Brown Game.” Chuck D [a rapper who created political music in the ‘80s] uses that in one of the “Public Enemy” records, where he talks about H. Rap Brown as this type of radical. I’ve really learned a lot from talking to him, once I got past being struck by having him on the phone.
MD: You’ve also brought a lot of interesting people to CC. Can you speak on that? Who have been particular favorites that you’ve brought here?
MS: Yeah. It was really interesting to have Flores Forbes here, who was the youngest of the Black Panther executive committee. His book “Will You Die with Me?” talks about his days as an enforcer and literal assassin for Huey Newton for that period of the Black Panther Party. Flores Forbes is somebody that speaks with a certain authority, as opposed to being an academic talking about it. Percival Everett, a novelist, has been here a couple times. His books are important in approaching questions of black subjectivity, intersubjectivity, interdisciplinary thought. His book “Erasure” is basically about a black novelist who is writing about Aeschylus and classical literature and is disallowed from doing that, and how that individual has to then write basically a stereotypical “hood” novel in order to get money and be paid attention to. I brought my friend Kahil El’Zabar and his trio to visit last year. We’ve been friends for a long time. He’s been Downbeat Magazine’s percussionist of the year several times, and he’s worked with Pharaoh Sanders and those kinds of people in the span of his career. I grew up on the 112th street of Chicago, so I grew up on the same block as Malik Yusef, the poet. He’s won a couple Grammys, he wrote some stuff on Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” for Common, and those kinds of people, like Kanye West. So Malik Skyped into our class and talked about his relationship to hip hop and spoken word.
I’m just fortunate to have all these people as friends. The thing about these people is that they are more interested in talking to students than you think they are. There’s one way where you’d be like, “Oh, this person would never want to be bothered…” but it’s fascinating how much they get from that energy. The ability to talk to smart people who are from a different generation keeps ideas fresh for everybody. I’ll try to keep doing that.
MD: What was the hardest part of your academic career journey?
MS: It’s the balance. Balancing thinking transgressively with the canon. I don’t speak traditional African languages. I didn’t study at the University of Timbuktu. I’m a very traditionally educated person: Jesuits, the Naval Academy, University of Chicago, and Brown. These are not outside the mainstream institutions.
Like, I like reading St. Augustine, I really enjoy it. I enjoy what St. Augustine was saying back in the 300s when he wrote “City of God.” So the question is, “how do we then use that in our contemporary moment to create a type of transgressive political project for transgressive ways of thinking? That’s probably the hardest thing—not even the hardest thing. That’s the thing when you really get down to it. That’s what we’re up to.
So it kind of performs itself in certain ways. That’s always been the biggest challenge. Even intellectually, when I was in grad school, I was lucky being able to go to Brown, where they didn’t have disciplinary boundaries. So when I finished my basic courses in Africana studies, I was never over there anymore. I was in comp lit, I was in philosophy, in the German studies department, I was taking religious studies classes, so I was trying to absorb this information to create a particular type of intellectual genealogy that then I could use to think about things differently. Understanding the roles of cultural limitations and the limitations of the ideas that have been introduced to me: that’s the challenge.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.