Black History Month and Discussions on Race

Michael Fosberg — an author, performer, playwright and instructor — works to create a national dialogue on race and identity. In 2001, he launched a one-man autobiographical play “Incognito” after discovering that his biological father is black. Along with his performances, Fosberg leads discussions on human relations, identity and race.

Fosberg performs his show throughout the U.S. at hundreds of arts venues, educational institutions, corporations and government agencies. He’s a faculty member in the theater training program at his alma mater Northwestern University and is working on an upcoming book titled Nobody Wants to Talk About It … Ten Years in the Trenches Trying to Talk About Race, Stereotypes & Identity.

What are your thoughts on Black History Month and the role race relations play in the workplace and beyond?
This is a complicated answer … I think it’s very important to recognize the achievements and history of black people in our country, especially since the history books we use in our schools are sadly bereft of this history. Black people have played a significant role in shaping this country and there should be more recognition and dialogue about their contributions.

There is also a history of oppression that needs remembrance, much like that of the Holocaust. However, what signal does it send that we have selected just one month to recognize this? And the shortest month at that? If we select one month for black history, does that mean the other 11 are devoted to white history? Why don’t we just integrate more black history into our American history curriculum in order to tell the complete story rather than one that is slanted and excludes the contributions of blacks?

I find this separation of our American history to result in that the majority of my bookings tend to be in January and February. Why don’t we allow this to simply be a jumping off point to encourage the discussion during the rest of the year? I also sometimes find that white people are annoyed by being “forced” to have dialogue about black history for the month of February. Again, if we used February as the initiation to more dialogue throughout the year, perhaps we could heighten people’s awareness of black achievements (and oppression) and then better integrate the dialogue into a year-round conversation.

Do you believe that we’ve come far enough in terms of race diversity in the workplace?
I have talked about this many times with different organizations/corporations … we can become as diverse as we allow ourselves to become, but if we don’t know how to talk with one another, to initiate dialogue across race, identities, ethnicities and stereotypes, it won’t matter how diverse we are. We need to find ways to converse with one another to share who we are and how we see one another in order to have a better understanding of what we have in common. After all, we have far more in common than we don’t, yet we generally start looking at one another from a place of differences.

During an interview with Mike Wallace for CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman calls Black History Month ridiculous and says the best way to get rid of racism is to “stop talking about it.” What’s your reaction to this?
He’s annoyed by the separation of black history from American history, and takes offense that it is relegated to one month. I would differ on his suggestion that we should stop talking about racism, although I think it is a matter of semantics. Although we would probably all agree that racism still exists (and in some ways has become more virulent, especially since the election of Barack Obama as president), I’m not sure how much actual dialogue about racism helps in our pursuit of understanding one another.

In my experience, when asked to have dialogue in mixed company, whites tend to approach the conversation from a place of caution — some more cautious than others — afraid they might say something that may sound or appear to be racist. On the other side, we have people of color who are ready to pounce on anyone or anything that sounds remotely racist. We find ourselves polarized by this and thus tend not to have the conversations that are desperately needed to help understand each other. Although many times talk of racism seems to alienate whites, by sharing what seems to be “troubling” (aka racist) on a personal level, we might find a way to relate in a universal way…speaking personal to personal.

How does your play “Incognito” address issues of race and more?
“Incognito” is the true story of the quest to find my biological father performed as a one-man play. During the course of an hour, I portray over a dozen different characters in my life as I act out the story of this search. Armed with only a name and a city where he last lived, I track my father down in a miraculous first phone call during which he informs me that he is black … a detail left unsaid by my mother. I uncover deep family roots in the African-American community in this country; a great-great-grandfather who served in the 54th Colored Infantry unit during the Civil War, a great-grandfather who was an all-star pitcher in the Negro Baseball Leagues, and my grandfather who was a genius and for whom the science and engineering building at Norfolk State University is named. As I recollect these events as if they are happening in the moment I conclude the show by confronting the audience about their own perceptions about race, identity and stereotypes. I then follow the presentation with a thought-provoking, in-depth dialogue about all issues of race, identity, stereotypes, divorce, adoption and family secrets.

Jennifer Kahn is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.