In The Direction Of Our Joy
A Dutch stranger’s curiosity was drawing him a little too close to an art installation. Wanting to look behind the curtain and decode the illusion, he teetered on the edge of setting off alarms. I noticed him because I too was attempting to see the mechanics behind the magic, albeit, less boldly. Our shared intrigue led to conversation. I turned my attention away from the work of art and began to unravel the mystery of the man. He’d been married twice, I learned. First to an American who left him. And now to a Dutch woman who is happy to stay. My own husband, standing nearby, advised that I abandon the practice of asking random people personal questions. Like the man magnetized by the work of art, I’m drawn to the personal. I wanna know people’s stories, so I ask, and they tell.
Earlier this same day, I met with filmmaker Adetoro Makinde at my favorite cafe. She grabbed some downtime in Holland, after a few noteworthy meetings in Lagos, to move forward her initiative “redefining the African narrative.” Hearing her story over our respective oat milk lattes, I suggested she pen a memoir. The idea was met with protest, “I’ve never turned to prostitution or drugs or anything, so I doubt people will find my ‘Hero’s Journey’ fascinating.” Western cinema boasts a rich history of characters from the criminal underground (you can count more whores and hustlers than chocolatiers or florists, certainly), but working girls and gangsters aren’t the only worthy subjects. We sometimes forget, the beauty of the everyday makes rich material too. Adetoro, incandescent and softly triumphant, carries the light of her experience with grace. Here’s her story…
“I was born in America. My family moved us to Nigeria when I was ten. For the longest time, I thought I was dumb because when we arrived in West Africa, my parents placed me in the wrong grade. I went from doing long division in an elementary classroom to solving algebraic equations in high school. I graduated at fourteen. Then there was a coup. I should say, another coup. Nigeria has had a long succession of coups. An uncle, who lived in the States, suggested my brother and I come stay with him. At this time, I'm fifteen, but still a minor, so what else was there to do? I went back to high school in Washington, DC - Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where I trained first as a classical vocalist, and later in media literacy, radio, and video production. As an American born African girl, watching the TV series Fame in Nigeria had been my escape. Attending Ellington had become my refuge.
My uncle's wife, turns out, was not at all happy with me being in her house. It didn't matter that I was obedient and a straight ‘A’ student. After only five months back in the US, my mom received a call from my uncle to come sort out her children. Mom arrived on a visitor's visa, thinking she could smooth things over, but it didn't work. Uncle asked us all to leave. So my brother and I became homeless teenagers. I got a job at McDonald's. It was my saving grace. I got my brother part-time work too. Together, we floated from rooming house, to trailer park, then into a teacher's spare bedroom. Finally, we found a place of our own. It was shitty, but it was ours.
After finishing high school for the second time, I was accepted at Georgetown University. I was pre-law and ready to live life as an attorney. There was security in this choice. Up late one night, after completing the L-Sat and a few weeks from graduation, I caught Beaches with Bette Midler on television. If you don't know the film, it's about two besties - one a wealthy, uninspired lawyer, and the other, an actress, broke but fearless and free. When the end credits rolled, I called my mother and asked, 'What would you say if I didn’t go to law school?’ She paused briefly, then responded, “It’s OK.” I thought, ‘Whoa, too easy!’ So I pushed further, ‘That’s it?’ To which she replied, "Adetoro, I think you'd make a brilliant attorney, but you'd be happier as an artist." With this blessing, she confirmed what was always in my heart. So off I went in the direction of my joy, passionately, confidently, and authentically.