By Michael Sidney Fosberg, Special to CNN
(CNN) - In 1991, my biological mother of Armenian descent abruptly filed for divorce from my Swedish stepfather – who after marrying my mother, adopted me when I was four. I was thirty-two at the time, and although an adult living on the west coast, the event turned my world upside-down. Up to that point I had lived a fairly common existence, having grown up in a working-class town just north of Chicago. But the consequence of this seismic shift in my family order was the reconstitution of a dormant desire to search for my biological father.
Armed solely with his name and the city where he had last lived, I set out for the library. Copying down several near identical listings, I raced home and nervously dialed the first number on the list. Miraculously, I discovered I had found my biological father in that first phone call. After several self-conscious moments of awkwardly nervous conversation, he suggested there were "a couple of things I'm sure your mother never told you." Since she had told me nothing much beyond his name, he could have been referring to almost anything! First he told me that he loved me and had thought of me often. Then inserting a wedge of silence as if to heighten the drama, he told me he was African-American. I thought, “Who/what am I now?!"
At the time of that first call, upon hearing the words "African-American", I remember catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror across my tiny room. Had I changed suddenly? Was I now black? Would I be pulled over for “driving while black”? If only I had known before I filled out applications for college! Did this explain the 'fro in high school? Or the outrageous outfits of platform shoes, multicolored rayon shirts, wide purple pants, topped off with the kinky hair and the wide-brim hat? Is this why a high school girlfriend's parents questioned my nationality upon first meeting? Was this the reason for owning the entire James Brown catalogue on vinyl? Or my obsession with Richard Pryor? How many other stereotypical traits might I conclude from this race-altering discovery? What was nature, and what was nurture?
More importantly, why hadn't my mother told me?!
This anger-filled, heritage-deprived question was surreptitiously answered via a random call from one of the many friends who now claimed, "We always knew you were black!" An old friend I shared the news with innocently asked me to imagine what it must have been like for my mother back then, to imagine the shame her family made her feel. Suddenly I was painfully aware of the difficulties in navigating the American color-line during the late '50's. The insurmountable obstacles facing a 20-year old, first-generation Armenian girl who'd been disowned by her parents for living in the projects of Roxbury Boston with a black man. She had attempted to straddle a racial divide with a mixed-race child long before the existence of our current mixed-race society.
This was further complicated by the fact that I was two when we suddenly left my father and returned home to live with my mother's parents, a move only made possible by the lightness of my skin tone. At what age could she have told me of my complicated racial composition, and at what age could I have really comprehended the identity shift? What would we have done if my skin had been darker?
Following my race-changing discovery, I journeyed across the country interviewing family members both black and white. In my families, I discover the historical record is long and impressive: an Armenian grandfather who survived the Turkish massacre of his people and his country, his wife who as a small child was almost denied entry to this country due to pink-eye during the mass exodus from their homeland, a great-great grandfather who was a member of the 54th regiment of the colored infantry during the Civil War, a great grandfather who was an all-star pitcher in the Negro Leagues, my paternal grandfather for whom the Science and Engineering building at Norfolk State University is named. This is the foundation I stand on, the footsteps in which I now travel, affectionately referring to myself as “AAA,” or African-American-Armenian.
But am I "African"-American, and what does that term really mean? Can I claim an identity, a "race," an experience, a family I did not grow up with? What makes me who I am? The color of my skin? My heritage? My culture? Is it the way I was raised by my stepfather, a man whose DNA I do not share but with whom I share many traits? Is it possible our identities are defined differently for each and every one of us? Even amongst races/ethnicities?
My black family has been all embracing. Most families of color recognize the multitude of shades and mixings that inhabit the black community. However, it took my white family a good deal of time to process the discovery. Their confusion lies in several areas: my need to search for a biological parent, my unabashed willingness to present my story – our family's history – to the general public, and a now somewhat awkward dialogue for us to traverse... a dialogue about race. This is a conversation most white families like ours avoid, simply because race is not a daily part of our lives like it is for families of color.
Being a writer and actor, I transformed this personal journey into both a memoir, Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self Discovery, and a one-man play, which I have toured to high schools, colleges, performing arts centers, corporations, government agencies, and military bases across the country. Following each show, I engage audiences in meaningful dialogue about who we are and how we see other. As you can only imagine, biracial people seek me out like a magnet, as do adoptees and people who don't know a birth parent(s). However, a fascinating thing happens for all during the course of the show. Time and again audience members begin to reflect on their own journeys to discover self. How have they arrived at their definitions of self? In what ways do they judge others? How much do we really understand about each other's lives, cultures, heritages, and ethnicities?
The way I have arrived at my “AAA” status is different from how others arrive at their identities. The warmth with which I embrace my black and white families and their respective heritages is unique to me. The words I use to describe myself may not jive with how others now perceive me. However, it is MY identity and what I have learned over ten years of performing the show and conducting dialogues is that each of us get to lay claim for how WE see, feel, and express ourselves and who WE are.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Sidney Fosberg.