Following is an abridged review of my book by Dr. Larry Ross, Professor of Anthropology:
Take One, Please… An Abridged Anthropological Review of Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self-Discovery, Authored by Michael Sidney Fosberg
Michael Fosberg’s Incognito is an outstanding personal ethnographic narrative; it is written with great humility, and it thoroughly elucidates America’s identity struggles of the last two centuries. Every human is born into a culture that is already going on, when you get there, so others actually decide your identity. This well-documented account, of both sides of his family’s successful escape from enslavement in the Old World (Armenia) and the New World (America) simultaneously, is indeed groundbreaking, by any measure: it presents a form of sociocultural dualism that has never been exposed.
As Fosberg explains, he was socialized as one of the “Starving Armenians,” those who survived the Turkish genocide during World War I, migrated to America, and made good against all odds. Fosberg’s Armenian maternal grandfather, Garabed Pilibosian, was probably the most influential male role model (in his conscious) of his early learning experience (originally Garabed Misakian, when he was enslaved by a Turkish family in Armenia as a child, before he escaped to Aleppo, Syria where there was an orphanage for Armenian children; then Garabed fled to Paris, France before making his way to America. Pilibosian became Garabed’s ‘made-up’ surname, of unknown origin, in America. The affable Garabed established a very successful cleaners in the Karcher Hotel, along with his Armenian wife Rachel, in Waukegan, IL, thereby averting his family’s starvation). Fosberg recalls that:
“Grandma would be in the kitchen ordering around her ‘girls’ who had no choice but to assist, while the men would watch sports, play cards, or engage in a rousing round of backgammon on grandpa’s beautiful, ancient, handmade, inlaid, dark wood board. As the aromas from the kitchen crept into the family room, our salivary glands would swell with anticipation. Delicate cheese and meat pastries covered the cardamon, and sesame, a soup of fragrant peppery broth with extra lean meatballs stuffed with nuts and garlic, lemon saturated grape leaves rolled around a meat/nut/rice combination, sumptuous flaky breads, a steak tartare-like dish, and our favorite, a kind of Armenian pizza, a pungent spicy ground lamb on crisp dough. And that was just for starters!”
Armenians were declared to be legally “White” by the United States Supreme Court shortly after the turn of the century, while other immigrants (e.g. Indians, Japanese, Africans, and Mexicans) were denied “Whiteness” and they continue to suffer the consequences. The major confounding variable of American life, for people without “Whiteness”, continues to be “Race” above all others: why is this? “Race” is the definitive predictor of one’s life chances in America, with ‘some’ statistically insignificant variation.
Incognito provides a profound, non-fiction Culture Construct (see Dr. Robert Lowie) which peels back the layers that under gird America’s sociocultural constants, in an experiential way that could not have been anticipated: this is because Fosberg’s identity had been projected as Armenian and “White” well into his adult life, however he serendipitously found out that his biological father is actually classified as “Black” in America’s “Racial” system (i.e. the Office of Management and Budget Statistical Directive 15; this is why you have to check those boxes).
Fosberg’s biological father and mother were divorced when he was two-years-old, due to economic and sociocultural factors (i.e. her “White” parents did not want “Race” mixing, and they wanted all ties with Fosberg’s biological father severed; this occurred when his mother Adrienne Pilibosian of Waukegan High School Class of ’53 remarried, and her new tall, blond, Swedish husband John Kenneth Fosberg of Waukegan High School legally adopted Michael Fosberg, who was also born with blonde hair). In this, a picture is truly worth a thousand words, because when you look at the pictures in the book, one can only surmise the epitome of “Whiteness” in an American Suburban Bucolic Utopia (Suburban Bucolic was coined by the Artist Steve Miscensik of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History; personal communication).
However, this vivid illusion falls apart, due to the weight of numerous disturbing undercurrents; Adrienne Pilibosian’s secrets from her college days in 1957 emerge, when Fosberg decides to investigate his biological father’s whereabouts after he learns that Adrienne is divorcing her second husband (after 25 years of marriage and two more children), who Michael Fosberg has known as his “father” since the age of two. The divorce was a shocker without any previous notification, and Fosberg’s world is upended; his rage toward his mother is initially vicious, however a friend intercedes and helps Fosberg to understand what his mother must have sacrificed for him, all of those years: a “White” girl having a child by a “Black” man in 1957, a time of absolute racial segregation in America (e.g. The Little Rock Nine). In conjunction, Fosberg’s blonde English girlfriend, and artist named Jo expresses anxiety over the loss of her biological father at the age of three (accidental death from electrocution), and how she had so many questions for him that can never be asked, or resolved.
This launches Fosberg on an ambitious quest to ‘find himself’ that leads him into a sociocultural purgatory, and he courageously treads where no man has ever gone; after he makes contact with his biological father by looking him up in the Detroit, MI telephone book by name (provided by his mother after about 30 years, although she did ‘mention’ his name once in the past), the truth surpasses all fictional possibilities! No one could make this up, because it simply ‘should not happen’, in America, where Identification is fixed and rigid: Take One, Please…
Also, Adrienne Pilibosian neglected to mention that Fosberg’s biological father was “Black,” preferring to tell young Michael that she thought that he “had some Indian” in his ancestry… Thus, Michael Fosberg grew up believing that he had a trace of “Indian” (i.e. Native American) “blood” and the rest was pretty much from the “Starving Armenians”: it was vague… A phone call to Detroit changed all of that when Fosberg’s biological father told him that he was “Black,” which was yet another shocker, and that he had been expecting to hear from him sooner; his father also told him that he worked at The Ford Motor Company, that he was married, that he had a mistress and another son, and that he was the target of an FBI investigation for Bribery (finally convicted and given a one-year prison sentence).
Thus, Fosberg found that he had another half-brother love-child who was “Jewish” and “Black” living in a suburban Detroit hideaway, funded by his biological father. Also, Fosberg’s biological father’s wife Sue was going to divorce him when the FBI completed its work… Sue rejected Fosberg and his efforts to establish a relationship with his biological father as well, so it seemed that the quest to ‘find himself’ actually led him to a hornet’s nest of high drama! However, his fraternal grandparents embraced him warmly, and through them he was able to be reunited with the distinguished side of his biological “Black” father’s family, John Sidney Woods, after about 30 years.
Actually, the “Black” side of Fosberg’s family can more accurately be described as legendary: his great-great grandfather Talton Woods (they have his discharge certificate) was a soldier in the “all-Black” Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment featured in the film Glory, starring Denzel Washington, that made the suicidal frontal attack on Fort Wagner during the Civil War: “Next to that was a picture of a tall as strapping black man in a baseball uniform in full pitching windup. It was her father, Charles “Lefty” Robinson, my grandmother said. Framed on the wall next to the photo was a player’s contract dated July 7, 1924, from the St. Louis Stars of the National Association of Colored Professional Baseball Clubs.” There is a picture in the book of “Lefty” and his team, the Mohawks, in Jefferson City, Missouri. Fosberg met his aunt in Jefferson City, MO and found out about the distinguished career of his uncle, Dr. Charles E. Anderson:
He had been one of the country’s foremost experts in meteorological research. He had received an undergraduate degree in Chemistry, along with being class president, from the historically black Lincoln University [founded by the Civil War’s 62nd & 65th Colored Infantry Regiments], a master’s degree in Meteorology from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. from M. I. T. in 1960. He had been a weather officer and captain in the U.S. Air Force for the famed Tuskegee Airmen and had experienced, my aunt said, “unbelievable horrible, terrible” racial hardships. For a while he worked for Douglas Aircraft, then he was recruited by the University of Wisconsin as a Professor of Meteorology, Associate Dean of the Graduate School, an organizer and Chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department. He ended his teaching career in the Department of Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University.
Fosberg’s uncle Paul, who also lives in Jefferson City, MO agrees to show him the ‘historic sites’ of the family in Mexico, New London, and Hannibal, MO, and an even higher level of revelations, regarding the “Black” family’s experience, is recalled:
“He tells me his father’s mother was Mary Morrison Robinson. Her father Arthur Morrison, had refused to raise Mary because she was fathered by a white landowner’s son and a black woman, his wife, Jenetta Morrison. ‘We used to tease my grandmother all the time, we’d say Gran Morris, when was ya born?’ An’ she’d say, ’49. An’ we’d say, ‘When?’ an’ she’d say ‘I tol’ ya ‘49’! She was born in 1849 before the Emancipation Proclamation. She was born into slavery Pike…or was it Rawls County, Missoura?”
In an effort to make even more intimate discoveries, Fosberg asks his uncle Paul about what growing up was like for him, after he was born in New London, MO:
“Uncle Paul, what was it like back then with separate bathrooms and drinking fountains and all that? ‘Hell!’ he gruffs. ‘What difference does it all make? If you can take a shit where ever’body else does? You can go behind a guy and that leaves of bad odor? Don’t make no difference if he’s black or white, it stinks! The fact that you kin go in the front door…’ He laughs heartily. ‘That don’t make…jus’ as long as you can git in the house, go in the back door…’ His voice trails off as I see he notices something along the side of the road. ‘Now right down in there somewheres there’s a tree, my father used to point out to us, on the way to Colombia, where they hung the Negroes, very close to the road. An’ the tree last time I saw it didn’t have no foliage. They lynched a black man, hung ‘im to this tree. That tree’, he says emphatically, ‘right over there in that field.’”
In this way, Fosberg discovers the painful tragedies and spectacular triumphs over adversity, of his fraternal and maternal lineages, after living the bulk of his life as a “White” man in suburbia.
Things fall apart with Fosberg’s English girlfriend when her repressed rage over the early loss of her father, her molestation by her stepfather in childhood and her mother’s disregard for it: her mother was as cold as ice toward her, and Jo faked illnesses to get attention from her mother… It didn’t work, and Jo’s stern ego protection may have transformed the development her personality; it became harsh, and she was challenged by one of their wealthy patrons while at dinner, on a job with Fosberg. Essentially, they said, ‘What went wrong in your childhood, and what are you still angry about’? which hit the nail on the head… The fact that Fosberg did not come to her defense led to quarrels, and the eventual demise of their partnership. On the rebound, Fosberg becomes engaged to a beautiful woman named Victoria, whose mother is “Black” and her father “Irish” thinking that this will solve his problem, in some way, and make him authentically “Black” somehow; she is warmly embraced by the “Black” side of his family at a holiday gathering, “Blacks” in California now accept Fosberg as ‘one of them’ when he is with her, and it creates a Kum-Ba-Ya moment… However, she has her own issues, becomes distant, and the relationship collapses: but it all seemed like a good idea, at the time, in Fosberg’s quest to find himself. (This is a ‘hint’ that you can’t have both, for the same price, in America, but the point was made absolutely clear to him by his siblings.)
In order to ‘close the circle’, regarding the “White” side of his family’s reaction to the suppressed revelations about Fosberg’s ancestry, he meets with his half-sister Lora and half-brother Christopher, in Chicago (they share Fosberg’s Armenian mother, but have a Swedish father, so they are identified as fully “White” in the America’s “Race” categorization scheme). His sister Lora is brutally honest, though perfectly tactful and insightful. Lora tells her half-brother:
“I remember you telling me and feeling kind of shocked. I was very surprised to see how much you looked like your father. I remember [mom] telling me she thought it would be really hard on you as a child to go through life knowing that information and that you’d feel isolated and left out. I think she felt her decision not to tell you was a good one because you never felt isolated and left out because you were black. She didn’t have a responsibility to tell you. When you finally asked her, she had a hard time with that, but she eventually did tell you. I think she has a lot of guilt about her history. But it’s her stuff; she did it, she lived it, she suffered in hell for it. I don’t know this, but my feeling is she probably doesn’t really want to get into it because she’s probably like, ‘Let bygones be bygones, my God! I was just a kid! at the time’. She wants to be able to give you what you want to know even though she doesn’t want to talk about it at all. She already paid her dues for it. And I hope you won’t force her to tell you things she doesn’t want to. Race doesn’t mean anything to me. But I don’t think that you’ll ever know what it means to be black. You’ll never be able to feel the racism that is out there. You’re only going to have the good parts of being black not the bad parts… ‘cause you’re just not black enough.”
Fosberg’s half-brother Christopher, who had moved to London for a job trading commodities, tells Michael that he should question his unconditional acceptance of his biological father, and that he should have unconditional acceptance for his adoptive father who raised him in their family, John Fosberg, instead:
“I think it probably hurts his feelings that, well, first of all, do and Dad are really different. You’ve never been super close. I think I’m probably closer to Dad than any of us ‘cause I can relate to him the most. I think the correct approach to the whole thing, and I’m not saying you doing it wrong, but because of what you’re doing and because you are searching out a new family, Dad needs to be reassured. So that it doesn’t feel like, ‘Thanks for bring me up but I got the blood over here and blood is thicker than whatever.’ Know what I mean? I think that a father is a kind of sacred thing. You know what I mean? It’s something that everybody needs, and obviously you can’t get away without having one, but if you’ve got it, you’re a really, really lucky person. It can only help you in life and it’s something you should hold really dear to you. And I think that I can’t relate to having two.”
A face-to-face meeting with John Fosberg, his adoptive father who has remarried and relocated comfortably, leads to a whole new level of mutual awareness and acceptance; a semblance of a father and son bond, that never existed before emerges, and they are able to offer explanations for some of their past misinterpretations of events. John explains that, “The only indication your mother ever gave me about your heritage is one time she said she thought you might have a little Indian in you, and I just kind of shrugged my shoulders like, ‘so what’? I know you got into that minority thing at some point in your life, about having Indian in you.” Based on what his mother had told him, Fosberg had been checking the “Indian” box on applications to universities: it appears that he was not the only person that his mother had told the Indian trope… John is grateful to Adrienne however, and he asserts that “She gave me a terrific education in becoming more liberal, more considerate, becoming more appreciative of the situation. From every aspect she gave me a great education without ever telling me why.” John in turn passed this awareness on to his bigoted Swedish mother, in anticipation of Fosberg’s upcoming wedding to a “Black” woman, stating that “Before you and the revelation of your heritage, she was unbelievably out of the Old World. Great lady, good honest woman, but wants to come up with arguments for discrimination, I don’t know how else to say it. Doesn’t even know what she’s arguing about, that she’s arguing for discrimination; she’ll tell you she’s not.”
Still closing the circle, Fosberg ventures back to Boston to investigate his origins. There he meets some of his illustrious relatives, then moves on to Martha’s Vineyard to meet his second cousin Cheryl, who exclaims:
“You don’t come to the Vineyard and not visit the Inkwell, baby!” The Inkwell…the infamous Inkwell has been the number one vacation spot for African American families for decades, and it’s the beach immortalized in the 1994 Hollywood movie with the same name. As we step from the car after scoring a choice spot up front, the beach unfolds in front of me. It is packed with every shade of black person you can imagine. It looks like Soul Train meets MTV…people dancing, laughing, joking, struttin’ their stuff. “Hey Skip, I want to meet my cousin Michael. Michael Fosberg, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.”
This event at Martha’s Vineyard causes Fosberg to further question his identity: Was he “Black”, was he “White”, how would he have fit, in this world at Martha’s Vineyard had he been socialized as “Black”? For decades, he had been immersed in an ever present Armenian identity that became supplemented, with a Swedish identity.
“In the end, I was not raised black. I didn’t live through the black experience, was not a target of racism, was not singled out because of the color of my skin, and was not spurned or called names. Does that make me any less a black man? Do you have to have that experience to be black? All my life I wore a disguise, a mask of identity. Incognito is defined in the dictionary as an adverb meaning ‘with the real identity concealed…with one’s identity hidden or unknown’. So what am I now? Who am I? Which box have I been checking off on applications, or in the 2010 Census? How about AAA. African-American-Armenian. Is there a box for that?”
While America’s “Race” system wants people to pick one, “Michael Sidney Pilibosian Woods Fosberg” provides strong suggestive evidence that it would be impossible for anyone to actually do so, with any scientific accuracy. Anthropological research has concluded that it is the group that decides who is a member, not the individual (e.g. the University of Maine’s Dr. Paul B. Roscoe’s The Perils of Positivism in Cultural Anthropology, and his citation from R.F. Ellen); thus the question of whether Fosberg will fit into his family’s Armenian side, adoptive Swedish side, or African American side revolves around each group’s presumed identity: this is what he would have to fit into, on their terms, but either ‘exclusive’ identity would be a misrepresentation.
In reality, this is the case for all Homo sapiens sapiens as explained by the American Anthropological Association’s Statement on “Race” which was published in 1998; about 94% of human genetic variation is within groups that have been classified as “Races”: no one is actually in a “Race”, which is the opposite what we have been taught for the past four centuries in America:
Fosberg finds that there was a legal obstacle to his biological father and mother moving to Virginia where his grandparents lived, when he was born in 1957 and John Sidney Woods and Adrienne Pilibosian were married; this was a major contributor to their problems, for
“The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia forbids, even to this day, they don’t enforce it, but blacks and whites can’t live under the same roof. It was hard to believe this outrageous statute still stood. It probably did at one time, but in 1996? Truth is, there was a Virginia law – the Racial Integrity Act — forbidding blacks and whites to marry (either in the state or another), or to have sex together.”
Therefore, social and legal forces made it extremely difficult for the young ‘mixed-race’ couple to survive, relying on family resources that could not even be accessed due to the absolute segregation of 1950s America. (Fosberg provides evidence in a chapter titled The South that the sentiments of the Virginia law above have not changed, fifty years later.) John was rejected by Adrienne’s mother, who came to visit her daughter in Boston only when he was not at home, staying in a hotel. However, Adrienne’s sister and brother-in-law were tolerant, during their visit in the 1950s.
This brief review cannot possibly encapsulate the scope, gravity, or sociocultural value of what Fosberg has discovered, in America. In my opinion, Incognito must be made into a feature film, like Glory, for worldwide distribution. It provides a thoughtful, introspective analysis that can help America, and the world, move beyond the Take One, Please paradigm, and its problems with diversity that result in conflict.
Dr. Larry Ross
Professor of Anthropology
 Michael Sidney Fosberg, Incognito (Chicago: Incognito, Inc., 2010), 22.
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