Chicago Tribune Dawn Turner Trice column
Feb 11, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
For the first 34 years of his life, Michael Sidney Fosberg believed he was white, just like the rest of his family.
His mother was white but with a slightly olive complexion courtesy of her Armenian heritage. His stepfather was blond with blue eyes. And Fosberg appeared to be white, with fair skin, hazel-colored eyes and keen facial features.
But there was always something about his hair.
"People were like, 'Who is the white kid with the Afro '" said Fosberg, 55, laughing. "I would complain about my hair constantly. One day I asked my mother, 'Where did I get this hair ' She said, 'From your grandfather.' And all I'd known about my grandfather was that he was bald."
For years, it never occurred to him that he was anything but a white kid growing up in a working-class family in north suburban Waukegan.
But in 1992, when Fosberg was 34 years old, his parents announced that they were divorcing. He'd always known that his father was his stepdad.
Suddenly, he wanted to find his biological one.
"I asked my mother about him, and she gave me his name, John Sydney Woods," Fosberg said. "And she told me that the last time she'd spoken to him was about 30 years prior, and that he lived in the Detroit area."
At the time, Fosberg was a struggling actor living in a one-room, rent-controlled apartment Santa Monica, Calif. Because the Internet hadn't yet blossomed, he began his search by visiting a local library and thumbing through a Detroit phone book.
He found five listings with his father's name, wrote down the telephone numbers and returned to his apartment.
"I was scared to death," he said. "But I gathered the courage and called the first name on my list."
After asking a series of questions, Fosberg determined the man was his father.
Fosberg said Woods told him that there were a couple of things he should know: The first was that he loved his son and had been thinking about him for years. The second was that he was African-American.
"I was standing in my closet-sized apartment, and I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror," Fosberg said. "And I was like, 'Did I just turn black in front of my very own eyes '"
In a conversation that lasted about an hour, Fosberg learned that his great-great-grandfather was a member of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, made famous by the movie "Glory." His grandmother's father, Charles "Lefty" Robinson, was an all-star pitcher for the Negro League's St. Louis Stars.
Woods and Fosberg met in person about a year later.
"When I first saw my father, it was like looking into a mirror," Fosberg said. "I was completely blown away. I also found it extremely comforting to know where I came from."
In 2001, Fosberg began traveling around the country performing his one-man play, "Incognito," during which he inhabits over a dozen characters to tell the story of his life. After the play, he holds a discussion about race, perceptions and stereotypes.
I met Fosberg in 2008 when I asked him to write an essay for an online Tribune forum I was moderating. When I talked to him last week, I asked him whether the discussions that he's had about race have changed since the country elected a biracial president.
"I'm not sure the dialogue has changed over the last five years, but I sense that more people seem to be willing to have this discussion," said Fosberg, who lives in Chicago. "And maybe it's because I'm telling a personal story, and I'm not standing up telling people what to think about certain races of people. The play creates a safe space."
Fosberg said that in recent years he's focused more on identity than on race.
"We come to our identity in different ways," he said. "Different things can define you: your skin color, heritage, religion. And yet, the way people look at you might be different from the way you see yourself."
He said all of this is so inherently complicated, and we try to simplify it by forcing people into boxes: white or black, Republican or Democrat, gay or straight. That's where we get into a lot of trouble.
So, I wondered: Was it difficult for him to make the transition from identifying as white to biracial
"I wasn't raised in a black household," he said. "So there are cultural and traditional things I didn't experience. To some degree, there's a learning curve. When I get with my black family, they tease me in a loving way about not knowing some things."
An example, he said, is that he knew some people ate "chitlins," but he didn't know they were pig intestines.
"The irony is that I was always very attracted to African-American culture and music and people," Fosberg said. "And that was before I knew who I was."
You can go to incognitotheplay.com to learn more about Fosberg's play, local performances and his book, "Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self-discovery."
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