The phone rings. I can't believe what I'm hearing. My father tells me about a book, a play and a man with whom he knew I would resonate -- Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self Discovery and Michael Sidney Fosberg. As usual, Dad was right. By the time I'd clicked on Fosberg's website I knew I had to learn more. So, I ordered the book and a copy of the performance directly from the author. Then, I set myself to reading and watching.
In short, Incognito is riveting. This remarkable story begins with Fosberg's parents, a first-generation Armenian-American woman and an African American man. Sadly, as is the case with many interracial marriages, Fosberg's parents divorced. At age two he went with his mother to live with her family in a small town outside Chicago. She later remarried a white man and had two more children. Fosberg grew up as a part of this family, looking and thinking he was white. Yet he always seemed to stand out. Decades passed before he discovered why. Late in life Fosberg found out that his biological father is black, thus making him multiracial -- or much more than what appearances seem.
Long before Fosberg's discovery we learn about his attempts to make sense of the world and his place in it. Gifted, yet struggling, we learn about his interests in theater and writing, his experimentation with alcohol and drugs, his strained relationships with his family and his longing to be and do something more. Fosberg is completely unique and wields his uniqueness powerfully as a way to connect with many.
Perhaps that's why Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self Discovery continues to earn such well-deserved praise. From audience members and readers who write him with "incognito" stories of their own to critics who refer to his novel as a "stunning memoir," Fosberg is finding that telling his story is only the beginning of his journey. What's most stunning to me, however, is how Incognito manages to avoid the trite tropes of the old racial passing narrative where the shock of black ancestry is revealed, seems repulsive and, as a result, goes unreconciled.
In a recent interview Fosberg told me that it is not always easy to navigate these issues. "I'm aware that I'm bringing up issues of passing and identifying who we are," he said. "But the fact of the matter is that I'm not going around at parties saying 'Hey Ya'll I'm black' and I'm not passing. That's why the title itself -- Incognito -- was perfect because it conveys the idea of a hidden identity. I was incognito and I still am to many people when I'm up on stage doing this one man show. Then, I make the 'discovery' on stage and audiences realize that I'm not who they thought I was. What's more complicated is that I can't deny that I receive white privilege because of the way people see me. And that's something a lot of white people don't acknowledge and that most everyone has trouble talking about. So, I'm very aware of engaging people in dialogue about these issues of white privilege and passing and it's very important to make people cognizant of them."
But a focus on race, passing and privilege is only part of the picture Fosberg paints. Illustrated with family photos and genealogies, Fosberg presents opportunities to consider and discuss universal issues that affect us all uniquely like adoption, divorce, marriage, family secrets, immigration, romance, class and national identity. What's more Fosberg shows us by example how we can overcome fear and anger, embrace all aspects of our identities, and find a comfort in our own skins. Put simply, Fosberg shows how to make of our lives an open book.
This "open book" is the larger picture painted so beautifully before readers' and audiences' eyes. That's why this reader and audience member's recommendation is to read the book and see the show. And, most important, to think and talk about what Incognito means in mixed company -- the company of others who may not share our own backgrounds and perspectives. Extending Michael Sidney Philibosian Woods Fosberg's African-American-Armenian model of honest communication into our own lives will help us understand more clearly what it means to Americans in the twenty-first century and, in so doing, what it means to be utterly and truly ourselves.