In the afterword to his fine new book, ''Now Is Your Time! The African-American Struggle for Freedom,'' Walter Dean Myers describes the Sankofa bird, an ancient symbol in Ghana.
''Sankofa means to turn back and get what you have left behind,'' he writes. ''The people of Ghana use it to remind themselves that before you can go forward, you must know where you have been.''
Generations of African-Americans have been unable to turn to history books to find out where their people had been. Oral tradition proved a fertile resource -- indeed, Mr. Myers used it as a research tool in writing this book -- but there were few published accounts until the recent emphasis on ''Black History Month.''
Here's hoping the next generation won't need such a month: By then, perhaps the heritage of African-Americans will be considered vital enough to be granted year-round status.
Until then, Mr. Myers' book fills a void. ''Now Is Your Time!'' (HarperCollins, $10.95 paperback, $17.95 hardback, ages 11 and up) provides a compelling portrait of what it must have been like to have been a slave in America.
More than two-thirds of the book focuses on the time between the mid-1700s and the end of the Civil War. Mr. Myers uses an array of sources -- from plantation records in the archives at the University of Virginia to newspaper files, such as the ad in the Raleigh (N.C.) Register of Feb. 20, 1818, touting a $50 reward for the return of a runaway slave.
He complements the newspaper clippings with oral histories and some written accounts by Africans who escaped bondage. Library of Congress records of the American Colonization Society helped flesh out the fascinating story of Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, the son of a chieftain in a west African district that is now part of Guinea. He had been educated in Islam at the storied university in Timbuktu.
Captured during a war with a neighboring chief, Ibrahima was sold into slavery and arrived in South Carolina in 1788. He eventually gained his freedom, and with the help of the American Colonization Society sailed with his wife to the new African colony of Liberia in 1829.
Stories like Ibrahima's breathe life into history. And Mr. Myers knows how to tell a story. His novels for young adults include ''Scorpions,'' a 1989 Newbery Honor Book, and ''The Mouse Rap,'' a 1990 American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults.
''Now Is Your Time!'' probably isn't scholarly enough for most of the committees who choose school textbooks, but it sure would interest the kids who have to read them. Not to be missed are chapters on Ida B. Wells, a columnist in the early years of African-American newspapers, and retired Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
* Also worth noting in non-fiction: ''Black Dance in America: A History Through Its People,'' by James Haskins (HarperTrophy paperback, $6.95, ages 12 and up). Packed with biographical facts, this traces the early influence of Africans on all dance in America. It takes readers from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s to Katherine Dunham's indelible impact on modern dance, from Chubby Checker and The Twist to Debbie Allen and Gregory Hines.
* ''All Night, All Day: A Child's First Book of African-American Spirituals'' selected and illustrated by Ashley Bryan (Atheneum, $14.95, all ages). Even if you can't read music or carry a tune, this songbook is a find. Ms. Bryan's bright paintings fill 12 double-page spreads, and in between are the words and music (for piano and guitar) to 20 spirituals, from ''O When the Saints Go Marching In,'' to ''Open the Window, Noah,'' and ''There's No Hiding Place.''
* ''Love, David,'' by Dianne Case, illustrated by Dan Andreasen (Lodestar Books, $14.95, ages 8-14). This novel by Ms. Case, who grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, is based on her mother's childhood. It's told in the first person by Anna, a young girl whose family lives in a one-room tin shack in the Kamp. Her mother works as a maid for a rich white family and her father is a gardener who gets drunk and mean on occasion.
Anna idolizes her half-brother, David, whose stubborn spirit won't give in to her father's bullying.
When David rescues a three-legged dog from drowning and brings it home, Anna's father blows up and David ends up running away. Anna cannot understand many of the forces at work in South African society, but her personal hardships hit home.
* ''Somehow Tenderness Survives: Stories of Southern Africa,'' selected by Hazel Rochman (HarperKeypoint paperback, $3.25, ages 12 and up). The racism of apartheid is painfully clear in this collection of short stories by authors who include Mark Mathabane (''Kaffir Boy'') and Doris Lessing, who grew up in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. The institutionalized injustice, violence and hatred is portrayed by black and white authors alike. Some of the stories offer hope; many do not.