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Booker T. Washington High School Celebrates Diversity for Black History Month

In many places, the invitation given near the start of Booker T. Washington High School's Black History Month assembly would still trigger a strong response, a "Why are they different from us?" mentality.

"Could you please stand for the black national anthem?"

"Many people have oftentimes thought that the black culture was monolithic," said Dr. Anthony Marshall, who teaches AP U.S. History and U.S. History from an African-American Perspective at Booker T. Washington. "That we all talk the same way, that we thought the same way, we dress [the same], we had the same political ideology. Such is not the truth."

A trio fills the high school auditorium with a harmonized version of "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The song of unity was first performed in Jacksonville, Fla., 114 years ago in honor of Abraham Lincoln's birthday.

Marshall said today's celebration, however, is all about diversity.

"Until we truly begin to appreciate each other for our differences, don't worry about trying to make everybody the same," Marshall said. "Appreciate the differences. Once we do that, then we'll truly achieve equality."

Those differences get as basic as where the students are from. Two students went on stage in cultural dress and introduced themselves to their peers. The freshman boy is from Ghana. The girl is from Kenya.

There are, of course, numerous cultural differences within the black community, easily recognizable in music and dance.

A handful of students perform a more traditional-looking African dance, clad in grass skirts and headdresses. Others go more modern, blending ballroom with hip hop. 

Diversity is the norm in singing styles, too, ranging from gospel to the 1960s pop classic "What a Wonderful World."

And to show differences in political ideology go back more than 100 years in black communities, two students offer an interpretation of the Dudley Randall poem, "Booker T. and W.E.B."

"It seems to me, said Booker T., it shows a mighty lot of cheek, to study chemistry and Greek when Mr. Charlie needs a hand to hoe the cotton on his land. And when Miss Ann looks for a cook, why stick your nose inside a book? "I don't agree, said W.E.B. If I should have the drive to seek knowledge of chemistry or Greek, I'll do it. Charles and Miss can look another place to find a hand or a cook."

But if everyone is so different, what's the common bond — the impetus not to remain separate? Rev. Philip Armstrong tells the students everyone shares a common history.

"Regardless of how we look, regardless of what we wear, regardless of where we come from and regardless of our background, we all are a part of history, and we all have a role to play to respect each others' valuable, rich history," Armstrong said. "Because simply put, black history is American history."

Or, as Marshall puts it: Diversity is not the problem.

"[There's] nothing wrong with seeing differences," Marshall said. "The problem is when we treat people differently because of what we see."

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.