'In The Blink Of An Eye,' A Change In Racial Identity

Michael Sidney Fosberg grew up thinking he was white. His mother is white. His stepfather is white. And while he never met his biological father, the assumption was that he was white too. But well into his adulthood, Fosberg found out that his father was a black man. Michele Norris speaks to him about his story that he's told in his one-man play and his book, both called Incognito.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This week, we're looking at the changing demographics in America and what it means, given those changes, to be considered all-American. And we're hearing from people who are helping redefine the notion of what it means to be considered all-American.

Actor Michael Sidney Fossberg is one of them. He grew up thinking he was white. His mother is white. His stepfather is white. And while he never met his biological father, the assumption was that he was white, too.

But well into his adulthood, Fossberg made one fateful phone call to find his father. It's a moment he relives each time he performs his one-man play.

(Soundbite of play, "Incognito")

Mr. MICHAEL SIDNEY FOSSBERG (Actor): Son, there's a couple of things you should know I'm sure your mother's never told you. Well, like what?

NORRIS: Fossberg learned that his father is a black man.

(Soundbite of play, "Incognito")

Mr. FOSSBERG: I didn't know what to say. I couldn't formulate words let alone sentences. I went from growing up in a white, middle-class family to being a black man in the blink of an eye.

NORRIS: That's from Fossberg's play. It's called "Incognito." He's also written a book with the same name. Once he discovered his father's racial background, he called his mother asking why she never told him.

(Soundbite of play, "Incognito")

Mr. FOSSBERG: As you got older, it became harder to tell you. I didn't want you to reject me. I didn't want to lose you. Michael, I'm - mom, it's okay. You don't have to apologize. You did what you thought was right. You did the best you knew how. I found my father. Everything's all right. I still love you.

NORRIS: As difficult as that conversation probably was, you perform it over and over. Over almost a decade, after all this time and all those performances, what do you think now of her decision to keep your father's identity hidden?

Mr. FOSSBERG: Oh man, she did the best she could. She was 19 years old. She was living in Boston in 1957. It was very, very difficult times. I've really realized that this time, especially now, when you think about the biracial community that there is now, there was no biracial community.

My mother had a choice. She could either raise me as black or white. That was it.

NORRIS: The show began as a theatrical production, but it's turned into something that's almost like an anthropological exercise, not in the performance but in the dialogue that follows the performance. Did you know that that would happen?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOSSBERG: Well, it's been fascinating. There's obviously a lot of misperceptions of people, and...

NORRIS: Misperceptions, really?

Mr. FOSSBERG: Yeah, I think people want to understand one another, and they have a desire to have dialogue, but there's a great amount of fear. And I'm trying to promote the idea that we need to create a safe place where we can have dialogue about who we are and how we see one another.

NORRIS: You know, you talk in the book about confronting those series of little boxes on the census form or other forms that you have to fill out. And you raise the question, but you don't really answer the question, you know, what you check there. What do you check when you're asked about your identity?

Mr. FOSSBERG: I checked more than one box, the black African and Negro box but the other box that might apply to me is white. Now, I don't think white really describes who we are as people. I would imagine that for a lot of people, they feel either Irish or Swedish or German, American or whatever it might be, and white doesn't necessarily describe who they are.

And so, I didn't feel comfortable checking that box. So I checked the other box. And if you check other, you have to write something in, and so I wrote in Armenian. I jokingly refer to myself as AAA: African-American Armenian.

NORRIS: Your mother's family is of Armenian heritage.

Mr. FOSSBERG: That's correct. That's correct.

NORRIS: Michael, I've read the book and I've seen the play, but many of our listeners haven't. It's amazing, having done that and seeing how much you actually look like your father. You really do. What was that moment like for you when you made not just the discovery of finding your father after all these years, but that secondary, discovering that he was someone who was of a different race?

Mr. FOSSBERG: Well, seeing him in that moment was just completely overwhelming. It was like looking in a mirror. It blew me way. And there was absolutely a moment of standing there and feeling the surroundings of the weight of my historical heritage. I have to say it was very, very joyful. It wasn't necessarily a burden of weight but a joyful weight.

NORRIS: Michael Sidney Fossberg, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Mr. FOSSBERG: Likewise, thank you.

NORRIS: That's Michael Sidney Fossberg. His book and one-man play are both called "Incognito."

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