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Credit: Amanda O'Brien

To a crowded room of about 90 people, six panelists spoke about the relationship between African American people and Africa on Friday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

The event, titled "Strengthening Ties within the African Diaspora," was organized by Penn Dental clinical receptionist Sonja Claxton as part of the annual Penn Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium. Hosted by Du Bois College House, the talks were co-sponsored by the Penn Women's Center and the African-American Resource Center.

Claxton said the Jan. 18 event commemorates 400 years since the first Africans were sold as enslaved people in North America. 

"We take this time to really thank our ancestors who made the trip and those who were unable to make it," Claxton said. “We honor [King's] legacy, and we honor his ancestors' legacy and journey from Africa to America and the work that they have done."

Panelists included Michael Griffin, CEO of Ashanti Produce International, and Lydia Henry, co-producer of the 2018 Global Women X Business and Professional Conference. The speakers discussed the different connections between African-American people and Africa, including the importance of business ties. 

“I’ve been doing business in Africa for the past 27 years,” Griffin said. “I look at Africa as the new melting pot.”

Panelist and filmmaker Nware Burge talked about the value of taking on traditional African names over the names passed down by white owners of enslaved people, 

“Last names like Jackson, Johnson, Wilson, Smith, O’Neale … come from England, from the slave master,” Burge said. 

Lawyer Mark Gyandoh, another panelist, also told the crowd about his family's history to emphasize the importance of the connection between African-American people and their ancestors.

“I’m married to an American from New York actually and we took our kids back [to Ghana] for the first time,” Gyandoh said. “Those kids are American but I wanted them to see their roots as well."

"I think they have the best of both worlds," he said. "They are connected to their ancestors from both sides.”

Claxton added that the event was inspired by Zora Neale Hurston's "Barracoon," a nonfiction book based on her interviews with Cudjo Lewis, one of the last living survivors of the Atlantic slave trade.

Students said they attended the event to learn more about Africa and its people.

“African Americans should learn more about Africans than we know right now,” College freshman Beyonce Lightfoot said.

Jessica Adedipe, a School of Social Policy & Practice graduate student pursuing a master's degree, said she believed the event connected well with Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, adding that the event reflected King's "pride in black people."

“I think celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. is a fabulous thing that we always need to promote," Adedipe said. "I think by doing so we are celebrating African culture and black people."