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Afro-American culture stars at children's museums

Many young people are familiar with famous black Americans, including one presidential hopeful, the Rev. Jesse Jackson; sports stars such as Julius Erving , Herschel Walker, and Carl Lewis; and, on the contemporary music scene, Michael Jackson. From reading history books, they recognize names such as Booker T. Washington, Jesse Owens, and Martin Luther King Jr.

But few textbooks cover the black baseball leagues of the 1920s-1940s or note that black Americans invented many useful items, including the lawn-mower, the egg beater, the elevator, and the golf tee.

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This month several children's museums around the country are highlighting these and other lesser-known aspects of black African-American culture as part of programs celebrating Black History Month.

''I think it's important we just don't keep retelling the old slave stories, '' says Dorothy Merrill, associate director of cultural resources at the Boston Children's Museum.

Now in its third year of activities commemorating Black History Month, the Boston Children's Museum provides one of the most comprehensive programs in the country geared for children and their parents.

The offerings throughout February include storytelling, hair-braiding, and cooking demonstrations, photograph and textile exhibits, dance and music performances, and video presentations. The program combines both traditional and contemporary aspects of black African-American culture.

''One of the ways we can begin to work toward people being able to live together peacefully in the community, in this city, or on this planet is to expose kids to different cultures at an early age,'' says Leonard Brown of Middletown, Conn., who developed the museum's Black History Month program. ''It doesn't have to happen on a heavy, academic level.''

Members of Boston's black community and other individuals are contributing their talents to create the vibrant potpourri of presentations. Mr. Brown, his wife, and their three children will be giving cooking demonstrations. In keeping with the museum's goal to present a realistic, nonstereotypical view of black life in America, they will prepare some of the natural foods they usually eat as well as some traditional African-American dishes. ''We'll probably bring up some tofu, brown rice, and other things,'' he says.

These and other firsthand presentations will help children understand and appreciate the black American culture in the context of everyday life.

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Parents don't need to wait for a special month or day to help acquaint their children with other ethnic groups, adds Mr. Brown. While it's not necessary or appropriate to have involved philosophical discussions on racial issues with young children, he does believe it's important for parents to ''be realistic with their kids and not (paint) the world as rosy. We all have to come to grips with the fact that we hold stereotypes at different times that need to be broken down.''

Mr. Brown offers these suggestions for helping children learn about other ethnic groups:

* Provide reading material, games, and toys from a variety of cultures.

* Curb viewing of TV shows that depict black families or other ethnic groups in stereotypical terms.

* Take children to activities where they will meet and interact with people from other cultural backgrounds.

* Make an effort yourself to participate in activities with people from other ethnic communities. The parents' example gives implied approval for children themselves to try to understand and enjoy other ethnic groups.

For more information about the Black History Month program at the Boston Children's Museum, call 617-426-6500.

Other children's museums holding special events during Black History month:

The Brooklyn Children's Museum, New York: Lecture-demonstrations, music, and ballet performances. Information number: 212-735-4432.

Capital Children's Museum, Washington, D.C.: African-American craft workshops on weekends. Information number: 202-543-8600.

Richmond Children's Museum, Richmond, Va.: Activities celebrating Black History Day, Feb. 19; highlighting Maggie Walker, a black leader from Richmond. Information number: 804-643-5436.

The Children's Museum, Indianapolis: A program saluting the original 14 black schools in Indianapolis, a drama re-creating a small black Indiana town during the 1870s, musical performances. Information number: 317-924-5431.

The Los Angeles Children's Museum: Weekend performances of West African dance and music, an exhibit of work by black artists David Butler and Howard Smith. Information number: 213-687-8800.

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