Is black history a particular folklore or an essential component of mainstream American history? Should it include the records of both heroes and rogues? Should it address conflicts within the black community as well as minority-majority confrontations and reconciliations in American society?
These questions have surfaced again in the February observance of Black History Month.
''Cast your buckets where you are,'' Booker T. Washington told the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Sept. 19, 1895.
These words have catalyzed a persistent, controversial debate - should blacks work with their hands or look to the ''talented 10th'' (an educated black elite) to pave their way to success in a land where they were once slaves.
Colleges and schools weigh the merits of black studies: Do they isolate or integrate the black experience? Blacks and whites ''in the street'' discuss lifting themselves by the bootstraps vs. pushing for affirmative action.
Washington's words have inspired one 20th-century black leader, Maynard H. Jackson, to form Bucket Brigade Inc. as his own activist political tool after serving two terms (1975-83) as mayor of Atlanta.
A black history program sponsored by the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts brought Maynard Jackson to Boston. And he praised Booker T. Washington in the city where W. Monroe Trotter, editor of the stormy Guardian newspaper, heckled Washington so that he could not finish a scheduled speech.
''Booker T. was not revered here,'' Mr. Jackson said in an interview. ''I don't agree with all he said, but I believe that today we blacks must cast our buckets where we are. Translated, this means we must stop sitting on our hands waiting for a black knight on a white charger to save us from our plight. We can use what we have to get what we need. We aren't doing that!''
Jackson's goal for the next eight years is to get blacks to cast their voting buckets where they are. By 1991 he wants the nation's five ''blackest states,'' South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, to elect two black governors, three black US senators, and 10 black congressmen.
But other blacks in the years since 1895 have resisted Washington's approach, called Booker T.'s ''Atlanta Compromise'' by W. E. B. Du Bois, a Harvard-educated editor, educator, and civil rights activist. The ''talented 10 th'' take on key leadership roles.
Washington is depicted as an ''accommodator,'' willing to ''buy peace'' rather than ''disturb the peace by protesting, demanding, and resisting,'' by journalist-historian Lerone Bennett in his newly revised ''Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America.''
When Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute and the National Business League, spoke at Atlanta, Southern states were enforcing ''Jim Crow'' (segregation) laws to deprive former slaves of their post-Civil War voting and civil rights, to ''put them in their places.''
Du Bois, who taught at Atlanta University while Washington was developing Tuskegee Institute, wrote, ''The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.'' In ''The Soul of Black Folks,'' in 1903, he also described the ''dilemma'' of his people:
''One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.''
This twoness of the Negro has been a recognized part of black history ever since. Washington's ''cast your buckets where you are'' introduced open conflict over the means by which blacks could best achieve their full rights; whether to accommodate or to confront the white majority.
Since the days of Washington and Du Bois, black history has zigzagged between these approaches.
* Marcus Moziah Garvey, a West Indian, persuaded millions of blacks in 1920- 21 to invest a total of $10 million in his Black Star Line movement to buy themselves a boat ride ''back to Africa.'' No boat was built, and no one returned to ''Mother Africa.''
* Walter White, Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, Du Bois himself, and others through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); James Farmer and Roy Innis in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); and Whitney M. Young and Vernon L. Jordan with the National Urban League all worked for civil rights through organization. They utilized court suits, calm negotiation, and ''calm'' demonstratons. Their efforts helped achieve the historic Brown school desegregation ruling in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 , and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
* The Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, H. (Rap) Brown, and the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC); and spinoff groups disrupted the status quo with passive resistance, sit-ins, wade-ins, jail-ins, and massive marches and demonstrations.
* Angry, highly controversial ''black power'' leaders such as Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale with the Black Panthers, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X with the Black Muslims, and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Operation PUSH came to dominate the headlines, along with politicians such as Adam Clayton Powell.
* Athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Leonard, and popular entertainers, caught the fancy of the black public and the approval of the white public.
As early as 1915, one man, Carter G. Woodson, who is called ''the father of Negro history,'' decided that blacks should be remembered by more than oratory, hazy memories, and oral history. He founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History to document the black story.
He established Negro History Week in 1926, centered on the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14), the 19th-century black abolitionist who preceded Booker T. Washington as a ''Negro spokesman.''
''Dr. Woodson found it difficult to accept history as taught in most schools and colleges when it is all about somebody else and none about him,'' says Willie L. Miles, today associate executive director of the association.
In 1976, the year of the US Bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence, ''we knew more than one week was needed to explore our achievements,'' Ms. Miles explains. ''So we proposed all of February as Black History Month.'' This year's theme is ''The US Constitution and the Black American.
''The 1983 kickoff in Washington, D.C., included awards to national essay winners, oratory by US District Judge J. Leon Higginbotham of Philadelphia, proclamations acknowledging the month by more than 35 states and scores of cities, and programs throughout the month sponsored by colleges, schools, private enterprise, federal, state, and local governments.
If American history were taught ''the way I think it should be,'' says John Hope Franklin of Duke University, an author and former president of the American Historical Association, ''there would be no need for Black History Month or even black studies as a major.''
A black historian who has spent his past 25 years at predominantly white universities, Dr. Franklin says of Black History Month, ''Dr. Woodson considered this a stopgap measure, to be used until black history is diffused with American history on an around-the-clock basis.''The history of this nation should integrate the black presence, whether it's a black reaching the North Pole, a black winning a Nobel Prize, or a black arranging freedom for American hostages.''