How a white man became black overnight

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Michael Fosberg was busy sprinting from one airport in one city to another, one interview followed by another. “January and February are booked solid,” he told theGrio over the weekend, acknowledging his increase in bookings at high schools, colleges and arts festivals for events tied to observances of the Martin Luther King holiday and Black History Month.

It’s high season for Fosberg, actor, writer, theatrical producer, storyteller and a man who discovered a wholesale change in his racial identity in the time it took to make one phone call.

Fosberg is the author of Incognito, a one-man, 12-character play that chronicles his world-changing discovery, what led up to that moment when he, a man whose outward appearance marks him as white, finds out his biological father was black. A book of that journey (out on Feb. 22; preorder on the Incognito website) distills his story in book form, and examines how the nation navigates the same turbulent waters.

It’s a story that started in a working-class neighborhood of Waukegan, outside Chicago. “I was raised by my mother and a stepfather,” Fosberg said. “He legally adopted me when I was 5. I didn’t know what that meant, and we didn’t have a lot of connections — I was into sports, he wasn’t.”

“They were getting a divorce when I was in my 30s, and I didn’t know anything about my biological father. I decided to press for some answers.”

By then Fosberg had gone on to pursue the theater professionally, working in the Chicago area with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, among others. A move to Los Angeles followed, with Fosberg working in television and movies, and doing more theater work in the area.

But knowing about his biological father was the itch he couldn’t scratch. Finally, he said, after he pursued the issue, “my mother gave me two or three bits of information. One was his name, John Sidney Woods.” The other was a location: Somewhere in Detroit.

“I went to the Santa Monica library and looked up his name in the Detroit phone book.”

Fosberg went home that day in 1992 to the quiet of his rent-controlled apartment, picked up the phone and called the first number on his short list of possibles.

He relates what happened next with a passion and a sense of character so profound, you know it’s been pulled from the substance of his own play.

“I’m looking for a John Sidney Woods?”

“You’re speaking with him.”

“Did you live in the Boston area in 1957?”

“I did.”

“Were you married to a woman by the name of Adrienne Pilbosian?”

There was a pause.

“He said yes, and I realized I’d tracked down my father in the first phone call.”

What followed was the catching-up conversation you’d expect, the revelations of family and connections revealed layer by layer.

“Then he says one other thing: ‘There’s something else I’m sure your mother didn’t tell you. I’m African-American.’”
“I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, and it was as if I’d changed in that moment from white to black.”

Fosberg’s initial discovery led to others: He had a great-great grandfather who was one of the black Union Civil War soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment, the soldiers celebrated in the 1989 film Glory.

His grandmother’s father, Charles E. (Lefty) Robinson, was a pitcher in the Negro Leagues before professional baseball was integrated.

His grandfather was chairman of the Science and Engineering Departments at Norfolk State University.

“It was an amazing phone call,” Fosberg said.

Fosberg’s story has garnered acclaim from ordinary citizens and media tastemakers. The Chicago Tribune called his play “one of the top theatrical events of the 2001 season.” But he noted the irony of how he was only now achieving something of a breakthrough in the media, after at least a decade on the road describing his transformative experience. “I feel like I’ve flown under the radar. Part of it might be the question of, who’s out there talking about race other than people of color?”

“The dialogue about race is such that, in mixed company, people of light skin tend to approach the dialogue from a perspective of fear. You don’t what to sound racist, don’t want anything to slip out that might sound racist. How can you have a dialogue if you have that fear?

“And people of color pounce on anything that even remotely sounds racist,” he said. “We need to create that space so people can make, shall we say, mistakes.”

Fosberg is keen to the distinctions of race and age within his audiences. Generationally speaking, he said, “there’s a lot less entrenched prejudice in young people. They’re more mixed, they seem to be more accepting. Older audiences are more set in their ways.”

The difference extends to race as well. “There’s a cultural difference in the way blacks view entertainment compared to how whites view entertainment,” Fosberg said. “When I do the show for black audiences, it’s a blast. They’re seeing themselves in all the different relatives I present in the show and they’re very vocal about it. White audiences tend to be a lot more staid, uptight, less vocal. It’s a not like they didn’t enjoy, they just don’t respond the same way.”

For Fosberg, one national tipping point of possibility for that discussion occurred, not surprisingly, after Barack Obama’s election in November 2008.

“I was in Grant Park the night he was elected,” he said of the epochal evening when 500,000 Americans gathered to celebrate the election of the first African-American president. “There were black men crying in the streets. The last time you saw that was when Martin Luther King died. It was phenomenal. That night was unlike anything I ever experienced.”

Bookending that American sea-change moment, two years later, Fosberg attended Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, an event whose very purpose — bringing civility back to the national discourse about a range of matters, including race — seemed more unnecessary two years earlier.

Still, his hope is to do what he can to break down the fourth wall between the nation and its reluctance to engage, thoughtfully and consistently, on matters of race and ethnicity.

“People really want genuinely want to have dialogue with people of other races, ethnicities and nationalities. It’s just so awkward. There’s a desire to do this, but I don’t think we’ve achieved that,” he said. “Our political system is a mirror of where we’re at as a society. I don’t think we’re having deep understandings and deep relationships. The first thing we look at are the differences, instead of the similarities.”

Americans will have plenty of chances for changing that in the future.

Fosberg’s experience as a mixed-race American is one gaining a wider visibility in American life. A June 2010 analysis of data from 2008 and 2009 by the Pew Research Center determined that more than 14 percent of new marriages — one new marriage in seven — takes place between spouses of different races or ethnicities.

“That figure is an estimated six times the intermarriage rate among newlyweds in 1960 and more than double the rate in 1980,” said the report.

The trend has been alive for years; a 2005 study by the Population Reference Bureau is antecedent proof of the Pew findings from last year. But the issue of mixed-race identities is still fraught with contention. In the current flap over the racial identity of the daughter of Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry (the child’s white father), Berry said she endorsed the “one-drop rule,” the legislative legacy of early 20th-century racialist thinking under which the presence of any African ancestry in a person fully defined that person as black, regardless of self-identification.

The full 2010 Census population profiles, with a more granular demographic snapshot of the population, will come out on a rolling basis, state by state, starting this month and continuing through March 31, the agency says.

“There could be some big surprises,” said Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, to the New York Times last month. “There’s not only less stigma to being in these groups, there’s even positive cachet.”

The reception to “Incognito” has been so uniformly positive and powerful, putting it on the screen was inevitable. On top of everything else he’s doing, he’s also involved in a documentary film being made about his life and the play his life effectively created.

So is Hollywood calling?

“I have actually, had a couple of small meetings and it didn’t go much further than that,” Fosberg said of the possibility of a feature film. “I lived in Hollywood before, I lived in that beast. I’ve been very methodical about it. My next writing project is to write the screenplay. There’s been nothing that’s confirmed, but what matters is the story. I want to protect the story.”

If that happens, that may be the supreme irony for him: the chance to tell his story as something experienced and enjoyed by people who’d sit and watch his story collectively, in the dark of a movie theater, incognito like him.