It's Black History Month and we'd better use the occasion to begin -- and continue -- teaching our children who they are.

Beyond the frantic calls to bring in the National Guard and the revival of Operation Clean Sweep, beyond Mayor Barry's Operation Fight Back against drugs, death and violence, even beyond the tears over Rico Marshall, the latest young athlete to die of a cocaine overdose -- if we are to turn around this terrible trouble, one fundamental thing that must happen is our youth must develop a truer sense of self, a pride in who they are.

"There is definitely a need for self-esteem," says William Johnson of Southeast Neighbors Inc. and head of the D.C. Department of Recreation. "The kids will tell you that. They will admit that is what is so grossly missing. A lot of kids don't know who they are and they don't know where they're going. I tell them to ask themselves three questions: 'Who am I?' 'Why am I sitting in a room doing drugs or being sexually promiscuous?' 'Where am I going?' They need help with those three sets of questions."

It's alarming that kids with such a rich cultural heritage feel so much like history's wastrels. Centuries before the first blacks were forcibly transported to Jamestown in 1619, their myriad African ancestors made contributions in social, political and religious life. Those who endured the human holocaust of the Middle Passage, becoming the human chattel of greedy and ambitious men, helped fight a war for freedom, miraculously managing to maintain their humanity despite criminal assaults on their identities.

And they went on to become unique parts, indeed among the creators, of America's cultural mainstream -- making unique contributions, constantly challenging its myths and injustices to expand freedom's meaning for women and other oppressed citizens. After civil rights laws ended legal segregation, the "I'm Black and I'm Proud" movement of the '60s helped erase that distorted legacy.

But in the past two decades, a more subtle form of economic, cultural and psychological racism emerged amid growing conservatism and new tolerance for prejudice. Many of our young people's concepts of self-worth have been influenced by negative images they see reflected of themselves in media. Unemployment and drugs become today's slavery.

Nor are blacks themselves without blame. As more blacks moved into the middle class, many sought to distance themselves and their children from some of the horrors -- and joys -- of the past. Some denied racism's existence until Howard Beach and civil rights erosion made the problems too vivid to ignore. Many parents assumed educational institutions were teaching their children about the black role in the development of America and world civilization. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

"It's been part of our downfall as a people to have had such expectations, and it is incumbent upon us to pass on our legacy to our children," says Dr. Joyce Duncan, who runs self-esteem sessions for blacks in New York. "We have helped build this nation and any number of nations as well. Having that legacy available to us as historical background is enormously healthy. But we must appreciate it and use it to heal ourselves."

It's not too late. Just as blacks engaged in programs of building self-esteem in the 1960s, it can be done again now. For if we allow the sense of self of our young people to erode, all of the political solutions to the crises of the inner cities will be for naught.

For example, we appear to be on the eve of expanding the antipoverty debate, with such major thinkers as William Junius Wilson, the University of Chicago sociologist, driving home the argument in his new book, "The Truly Disadvantaged," that the answer for the inner cities are child care, expanded welfare and job creation for all Americans. But along with such change must also come the fundamental battle within the mind, the individual desire to end the debasement of the spirit and come out of deprivation -- and a fundamental step in this process is creating a sense of self-worth.

Not every kid who lives east of the Anacostia River is selling drugs or having children. Thousands of young people are attending classes, going to college and avoiding teen-age pregnancy. Many dedicated teachers and families are struggling to gird them up against sagging morales and the easy money and glitter of drugs. But some parents know full well that their children are dealing drugs and accept the fruits of their children's dangerous labors.

In this battle to help to reverse the breakdown that has occurred and help our youth gain self-esteem, we must all enlist, armed with creative ideas -- especially churches and black professionals. But the first step must begin with grass roots receptivity and willingness to utilize self- help to gain self-esteem.

"I am somebody!" shouted Jesse Jackson in his drug rallies to high school students. "I am somebody!" the young people yelled back, echoing the cadence. It is time for that roar of self-respect to resonate throughout this area and become a deeply held belief, not merely a perfunctory sigh during a rally or Black History Month.