With a kora player striking bell-like notes behind him, actor and activist Ossie Davis rapped about history, about how blacks in trouble have always communicated via the drum. "The question now is: Who has the drum," Davis said. "Has TransAfrica got the drum? Has the NAACP got the drum? Have black colleges got the drum? Have you got the drum? Somebody tell me the answer."

There was a pointed message in his humor, and people leaving the annual TransAfrica dinner Saturday and drifting into a midnight dance debated Davis' question. But whether the drummer that night was Randall Robinson, TransAfrica's executive director, or Michael Manley, the former prime minister of Jamaica and the evening's keynote speaker, or Davis himself, was not settled. Yet the debate itself was a stimulating signal of the evening's success in raising consciousness.

Continuing Davis' theme, Manley discussed how past leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., were ignored by some, destroyed by others. "Each time a prophet of the diaspora has beatened the real drum, forces have destroyed him," Manley said. "How many of us remember the deeper message and confuse it with the message of the destroyer?"

Now in its fifth year, the dinner given by the black lobbying group for Africa and the Caribbean is the third-largest predominantly black banquet in Washington, after the Congressional Black Caucus' annual weekend and Howard University's Charter Day. Saturday night's dinner at the Washington Hilton attracted 1,000 people from across the country, part of TransAfrica's growing membership of 10,000.

In the last year, Robinson has also received his own cachet--that of persona non grata at the State Department. At the pre-dinner reception, both Robinson and Richard Hatcher, chairman of the TransAfrica board and mayor of Gary, Ind., spoke about Robinson's status in government circles. Last year Robinson released State Department working papers that outlined a strategy to restore respectability to the South African government, long ostracized by most of the world because of its apartheid policies. Since then, Hatcher said he has received two letters from Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. saying Haig would not meet with a black delegation that included Robinson. "Our position is that we didn't advise him who he should have on his delegation, so we didn't want him to tell us," Hatcher said.

"With the temperament and bent of this administration, access doesn't matter," Robinson added. But Samuel Jackson, an attorney and member of TransAfrica's board, said that he and a few other black Republicans have met in recent months with Chester Crocker, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "Policies have been modulated; the rhetoric has been modulated. I don't want to suggest that anything dramatic has occurred, but they have bounced ideas off us," Jackson said. "Prior to January they weren't concerned about what black Americans thought about foreign policy."

This year, for the first time, Robinson said, a few people had criticized the selection of the speaker. Some critics felt that Manley was too radical for the tastes of the black masses TransAfrica needs to attract. "He's a sharp analyst and remains an important spokesman for Third World issues," Robinson said.

In his remarks Manley spoke of the Reagan administration "revisiting the Cold War." Said Manley, now the leader of the opposition party in Jamaica, "The Cold War does not exist for its own sake, it is used as a manipulative device to keep the rest of us from concentrating on our problems." Manley also said that although he approved of the intention of the Reagan Caribbean Basin Initiative, he disapproved of the military component and the heavy emphasis on private development.

As the evening ended, Robinson called for people to listen more closely to "Ossie's drum," saying, "We have to understand other drums are confusing us. This administration's policy is fundamentally wrong. All of us have to commit all of our resources to putting these people out of office."