There is bitter irony in the fact that the century following the close of the Civil War has witnessed a people, freed from the shackles of slavery, struggle for equality, seize upon the ballot box as the figurative end to their quest, and then use the right to vote won by the blood of their ancestors to place themselves voluntarily in political bondage.

The overwhelming defeat inflicted upon the Democratic Party by Ronald Reagan shattered the illusion that a monolithic black vote is pivotal in national elections. Jesse Jackson made the 1984 election a litmus test of black political strength, and 90 percent of the black vote went to Walter Mondale. As a result, we have a popular president, in the first months of a four-year term, who will be shaping his policies without much contribution from black leaders.

It appears some lessons take a long time to learn. When Ronald Reagan's term expires, the presidency of this nation will have been in the hands of the Republican Party for 16 of the past 20 years. Yet black Americans, who collectively can ill-afford to stand pat, have continued to pledge blind allegiance to the Democratic Party.

History records the futility of one- party politics in a two-party system. Black allegiance to a great Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, became the glue that tied blacks to the Republican Party at the very beginning of black political history. Starting in the term of Ulysses S. Grant, when blacks were granted the right to vote by the 15th Amendment, black voters became solid supporters of the Republican Party. The passingyears saw the initial strong Republican advocacy of civil rights and social justice for blacks gradually diminish, and shortly after the turn of the century strong advocacy became benign neglect. Unfortunately for black Americans, their inability to influence national policy through the Republican Party effectively placed a moratorium on black advancement, for the Democratic Party owed them nothing and was not interested in currying black political favor.

There is a haunting familiarity to this refrain. For black Americans a cataclysmic political event came with the advent of the New Deal, when people caught in the depth of despair voted for hope, and with that vote, black America shifted en masse to the Democratic Party.

Nearly 50 years have passed since the black exodus from the Republican Party, and events have come full cycle. The political history of blacks can be summarized succinctly. We spent the first years of existence in America in bondage. Freed by the Civil War, we spent the next halfcentury indentured to the Republican Party. Finally, we forsook that bondage in favor of spending 50 years as captives of the Democratic Party.

It is time for black Americans to face the music. We hear the siren songs of many leaders, pulling us in many directions. Jesse Jackson decries Democratic denial of blacks and urges black voters to rethink their allegiance to the Democratic Party. Louis Farrakhan preaches black separatism to a growing audience of blacks disillusioned by the political proc process in which we have yet to truly participate is hardly an answer to our problems. The answer lies in fully participating for the first time in our history. The answer lies in achieving a black population that recognizes that the two-party system works, and works best when both parties are home to people who represent the rich cultural diversity of America.

Black Americans must look within themselves, examine their beliefs and act with the courage of their convictions. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll suggested that 37 percent of blacks approve of Ronald Reagan's handling of the presidency. These numbers are particularly meaningful in light of the fact that this president is constantly vilified in the black community. They suggest that large numbers of black Americans share strong fundamental and, I dare say, conservative beliefs. Their values are closely aligned with the Republican Party, but they have yet to summon the courage to vote in accord with the values.

Black Democrats do not want to be taken for granted, and black Americans do not want to be taken for a ride -- or taken, period. To avoid all this, it is we who must do the taking. We must take advantage of our opportunities and take control of our destinies. We must take a long, hard look at where we want to go, and how we want to go, and how we want to get there.

For some of us, who believe in conservative values and who think solutions come from eople rather than government, the most effective political course lies with the Republican Party. For others, who legitimately believe in a large and active government role in our lives, the Democratic Party continues to be the appropriate vehicle to carry their aspirations. What is critical is that black Americans do some serious soul searching about the choices available to them, and pledge themselves to keep faith with their views about what is right for them and right for America.

Only then will we have a true, two- party system. Only then will our political bonds cease to restrict our advancement. Only then will we be free, at last.