The Root Interview: Michael Fosberg on Being the Incog-Negro

Illustration for article titled The Root Interview: Michael Fosberg on Being the Incog-Negro

Michael Fosberg is a professional actor who was raised by his biological mother and adoptive father in a working-class white family. At the age of 30, upon hearing the news of his parents' divorce, Fosberg began a search for his long-lost biological father.


Two years later, armed with just a name (John Woods) and a city (Detroit), he tracked down his dad and spoke to him, for the very first time, by phone. His father said that there were a few things Fosberg's mother hadn't told him. First, that he's always loved his son and thought about him. And two: "I'm African American."

After Fosberg — who, like his father, can pass for white — got over the initial shock, his dad told him about his black side: a grandfather who was chairman of the science-and-engineering department at Norfolk State University; a great-granddad who was an all-star pitcher for the Negro Leagues; a great-great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War as a member of the 54th regiment of the "colored infantry"; and the many family members still living, most of whom are thriving despite the obstacles in 21st-century America.

For the last decade, Fosberg has been touring the nation performing a one-man play, Incognito, based on his life story. He says that this theatrical work confronts "issues of stereotypes and race, but more than anything it deals with the idea of identity, and how each of us identifies ourselves and how we look at others."

Fosberg's self-published memoir, with the same title as the play, will be released in February. The Root spoke with him by phone after seeing him perform his funny, insightful and moving play in New York.

TR: How has your life changed since you discovered that your dad is black?

MF: My life is so much fuller than I ever imagined. Having this culturally rich family come into focus for me, and being able to embrace them, and them to embrace me — I can't even tell you the love that we've shared. But now I also get to share the story, and to affect people in a way that I never dreamed possible.


TR: What was it like learning the illustrious history and heritage of the black side of your family?

MF: Finding out that what I had sort of felt my whole life — that I was indeed part black but couldn't explain — and then to discover that I have this rich history? Wow. It was amazing, overwhelming.


TR: How do you now identify yourself on the census?

MF: Well, I'm biracial, multiracial. Although I'm not that happy about the whole definition there, I'm going to check the "Black, African Am or Negro" box. The "White" box doesn't say anything about my identity on the other side of my family — Armenian — [so] I can't go there. I also check the ["Some other race"] box and then write in, "Armenian." That's what I did in the 2010 census.


TR: What do you think about the biracial movement?

MF: In the 2000 census, we actually had a "Biracial" box. Apparently, more than 7 million people checked that box. But many experts believe that's just a fraction of the people who are [actually] biracial. I do think that it helps in regards to us not having just a "Black" or a "White" box.


There's such richness in between the two choices that we're always given — Democrats or Republicans, liberal or conservative. Or in Tuscon, Ariz., it's either the killer was crazy or sane. So I do think it's a good thing to be able to recognize [biracialism]. But we need to do more than that. We need to talk more about what that is, how that identifies us.

TR: Did you hear about the research recently published in Social Science Quarterly? The authors of a study found what they call a reverse pattern of passing today.


MF: Are they suggesting that more people are coming out as black?

TR: It says, "Blackness, the authors argue, is less stigmatized today. Biracial and multiracial individuals feel more free to experiment with their identity … "


MF: Yes.

TR: " … and many express pride in blackness and take steps to accent attributes that they consider black."


MF: Since what I call "the Obama phenomena," we are definitely more eager, and perhaps more willing, to have the dialogue. The problem I see is that we still don't know how to have that dialogue. So this study seems to make perfect sense in that scheme of things. Why wouldn't we be proud that we have a man of color, or multicolored, in the White House? Wouldn't we want to embrace that more? Yes. It makes complete sense to me.

TR: What do you think of "color-blind" and "post-racial"?

MF: We don't want to promote color blindness. We want to recognize and understand what's in front of us. The same denial exists when they think we're in some post-racial environment. You remember? Right after we elected Barack, some thought that since we've elected a black man, everything's OK. As if that would solve all of our problems.


TR: Washington Post journalist Eugene Robinson argues in his book Disintegration that the black population in the United States has splintered into four categories: the Transcendent Elite, the Mainstream, the Abandoned and the Emergent, which is grouped by black immigrants and biracial people. What's your take on this framework?

MF: I understand that in [the] social sciences, they stratify and create ways that we can understand who we are. These being generalities, to some degree it describes factions of the black community. And obviously there are things that slip in between as well.


TR: Robinson says that President Obama fits more than one of those categories.

MF: Right. But we have such a rich tapestry of human existence that I don't know if [stratifying] helps, because I think it breeds stereotypes.


I do a workshop exercise where I talk about stereotypes and categories, which we have because there are such huge amounts of information to file in our brains. It helps us comprehend that information. Whether it's male or female, black or white, Asian or Hispanic, athletes or models, all of these different [terms] help us categorize. But we create a bunch of stereotypes behind them. And what generally happens is that we judge those categories by those stereotypes, and instead of looking at people as individuals, we look at them as a group.

I think there are quite a few differences between Oprah and Colin Powell and Barack Obama, yet the category of Transcendent Elite doesn't help us see or acknowledge those differences.


Greg Thomas is a regular contributor to The Root.

Greg Thomas is a cultural journalist and frequent contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook