The St. Paul’s School community filled the Chapel on the morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to listen to and sing spirituals and hear part of King’s famous speech
, when he spoke of the mountaintop he had been to and called on people to carry on their nonviolent protest against injustice. “I may not get there with you,” he warned, and the next day he was struck down.
In Memorial Hall, Vice Rector of Student Life Jada Hebra shared the story of what had occurred at SPS on this day in 1990, when New Hampshire was one of two U.S. states that did not yet recognize MLK Day. Back then New Hampshire called it “Civil Rights Day,” and observance of the holiday was optional.
“The students at St. Paul’s School didn’t think that was OK,” Hebra told the community. They asked Rector Kelly Clark if he would cancel classes so they could march to the New Hampshire Statehouse and present the governor with a petition to re-name the holiday day after Dr. King. The Rector agreed, and the whole school marched to present the petition, a tradition that the community continued each year until 1999, when the state legislature voted to make New Hampshire the last state in the nation to recognize the MLK Day holiday.
“Today marks the 26th anniversary of a unique St. Paul’s tradition of honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Hebra, who organized this year’s events. “Every year since then, SPS upholds this tradition by taking this day to continue the work of connection and civil discourse about civil rights in this country and around the world.”
For the day’s main event, Gregg Townsend ’75 introduced his college friend, Michael Fosberg, who would perform “Incognito,” a play about his search for identity.“It is his story; it is a true story,” Townsend said of Fosberg’s play. “I hope it will resonate for each of you as you search to define your own identities – who you are, who you are not, and who you should be.”
The play revolves around Fosberg’s search for his biological father and discovery that his father is a black man, and his awkward embrace of his new biracial identity. Fosberg performs every role, including those of his younger self, his white sister and mother, his British girlfriend, and those of his black father, grandmother, and grandfather. His portrayals of the characters exaggerate common stereotypes of gender, race, and ethnicity, which often drew laughter and sparked recognition from the audience.
After the play, Fosberg asked for questions, and students had many for him. They wanted to know how Fosberg’s step-father and sister had reacted to his new biracial identity, and whether his white skin ever made him feel that he was not “black enough.” One student asked about racial “labels” and how they affect Fosberg’s sense of identity.
Fosberg acknowledged that his search for his biological father and discovery of his own biracial identity initially threw his white family into chaos. His journey led to family discord and uncomfortable conversations about race and identity, and even a lawsuit over Fosberg’s plans to publicly share his family’s story.
“When you’re growing up in a white family, discussions of race never happen,” he said. “In families of color, these conversations happen all the time. We all need to have that dialogue, even if it will be uncomfortable. We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Fosberg says his journey helped him understand and cement his sense of identity and how he fit into society. He believes these journeys of self-discovery are central to the human experience, and that our perceptions of our identities are fluid and evolve over time.
“We are all on that journey of self-discovery,” he said. “Each of us comes to our identity in different ways, and the journey will go on your whole life.”
Fosberg’s belief in the urgent need for open dialogue about issues of race, ethnicity, and identity led him to write his memoir, “Incognito: An American Odyssey of Race and Self-Discovery,”and to create the play, “Incognito,” which he performs across the country.
“As a biracial individual, I am blessed to be a bridge across race and identities,” he said. “I’ve had people criticize me and say, ‘Oh, now you say you’re black, but all your life you benefitted from white privilege.’ And it’s true, but what I do for a living is engage people in the conversation of what is black, what is white, and how we perceive it. Even though we embrace some of these labels, they mean something different to everyone.”
Fosberg concluded by urging everyone to tell their stories and continue these conversations, as well as speak out when people do or say things that offend them or others. “Silence gives consent,” he said. “If you see or hear something that’s offensive or racist, you need to speak up.”