Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self-Discovery

By: Michael Sidney Fosberg
Publisher: Incognito, Inc.
Publication Date: February 2011
ISBN: 978-0-615-41396-9
Reviewed by: Deb Fowler
Review Date: January 10, 2011

Things were never quite the same when Michael got his new “Waukegan father.” Of course Mikey never knew his “real” one, but this man, try as he might, never was able to interest him in anything. John Fosberg tried his best to bond with his new son by taking him fishing or teaching him the ins and outs of woodworking, but to no avail. The five-year-old boy didn’t want the misery of being woken at 5 a.m., trussed up in an oversized lifejacket, and thrown in a boat to catch fish. Buying them would have been easier. Did the man ever hear about things like basketball? It was a standoffish relationship at best, but later Mikey would admit that “The very things I found so irritating about him, I realized much later, were the greatest gifts he gave me: work hard, have integrity, be honest, save money.” (pg. 40)

Mikey always felt like an outsider, but his brother and sister, Christopher and Lora, who were almost a decade younger, seemed to understand him as did Papa Charlie. Papa Charlie, otherwise known as Garabed Pilibosian, was an Armenian immigrant, a survivor of “the first modern genocide” in Armenia. He seemed uncertain about his mother, Papa’s daughter, as his place in the family made him feel like that of an outsider looking in. Why? He was a shy, timid young man, but strangely enough, acting became his refuge, his forte. “I was bitten by the stage bug, and once I got my first taste, I plunged forward, foot firmly on the accelerator.” (pg. 33) It was one of those things his father, John, looked askance at.

And then there was his relationship with drugs which later spiraled out of control by the time he was attending the University of Minnesota. Perhaps drugs were the answer, but he later claimed that “What had originally given me hope, acceptance, and likeability had now driven me into a dark world of isolation, depression, and despair.” (pg. 51) Michael Sidney Fosberg was traveling through life grasping at straws never quite knowing where he belonged. There was his family, his friends, girlfriends, and a series of funky jobs that presented themselves as the years began to pass. Then there was his parent’s divorce. He started asking some very pointed questions and sought out that “real” father. A few telephone calls later he found John Sidney Woods, who did not mince words … “There’s one thing that I’m sure your mother never told you … I’m African American.” (pg. 73) Was his whole life a lie? Who were his other relatives? What would his Dad have to say about this one?

This stunning memoir will ask the reader to seriously reconsider the meaning of ethnic identity. Michael, who was one day a middle-class white man, was stunned when he found out that he was actually a “black” man. I was riveted to the pages as I traveled with Michael as he explored his heritage, experienced his angst, and debated with himself about the meaning of his racial identity. There were several passages that were quite emotionally striking and thought provoking. For example, he asks “If you don’t grow up black, do you know what it means to be black, live black, walk, talk, eat, and socialize black?” (pg. 114) A few times the memoir felt a bit disjointed, but I believe what I was sensing was his uncertainty about his life and the discovery of an instant ancestry.

Quill says: If you want to take a journey through the American experience, white and black, this is one book that will take you on a ride you won’t forget!

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