By James Makawa
Special to TelevisionWeek
In 1977 “Roots” was a both a cultural and a television rage in the United States. As a young student growing up in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, I read about this TV event of the century. The story graced the covers of Time and Newsweek. As young Africans we could not understand why this was such a big deal. I would learn later. Hold that thought.
Keep in mind that in 1977 Rhodesia was in the midst of a heated war. The black majority was on its way to toppling the brutal apartheid regime of Ian Smith. I mention this to say our daily focus was about survival. We read about “Roots” but could not make the connection. In the spring of 1977 that connection happened big time.
I was 17 years old at the time. A wonderful family in Westville, Ind., offered me refuge from the war and a chance to continue my education. These were friends of my parents. What an opportunity: two years in an American high school before college-wow!
I arrived in Westville in 1977, population 3,000. The local elementary and high school had about 800 students, only two of whom were black. One was African American and then there was James Makawa, right off the plane from Africa in a community with two blacks in its school, and everybody in the student body was talking about Kunte Kinte and “Roots.” For the first time I witnessed on TV the true life story of Alex Haley and his reconnection to the motherland in its purest form. It was real. It was compelling. It was the TV event of the century.
As an African coming to the U.S., I now made the connection and understood why this was such a big deal. Even at that age, and growing up in Zimbabwe, I understood that coverage in Time and Newsweek was a big deal. African Americans cut off from their history now had one of their own, Alex Haley, boldly tracing his roots back to the motherland.
When I arrived in 1977 the nation was gripped with “Roots” the TV series and the book was also flying off the shelves. This was a broad-based audience soaking up one of the most compelling stories in its history. I now understood.
How ironic that 30 years later I wind up in an industry that would give birth to what I believe is one of the most compelling media ventures of our generation, co-founding a TV channel about Africa. No longer would audiences outside of Africa have to wait to experience the continent through a TV series-but through a 24-hour channel that would amplify the African experience and reconnect a new generation of African Americans and the audience at large back to the cradle of mankind.
When I first came to the U.S. I did not understand the “Roots” connection to Africa. Now I do in the most profound way.
James Makawa is CEO and co-founder of The Africa Channel.