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A Musical Bridge of Harmony

By Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 15 1997; Page D01

Headlights peep over the hill, and Sasha runs for it. She puffs across the street into the beams of light, her boots clapping the cement like an ovation.

"The bus!" she calls. The 7:03. Sasha Corrodus, 13, can't miss the bus. Another one won't rattle by for 20 minutes, and that would make her late for school. It takes an hour for Sasha to bus and train and walk to school from her row house in Trinidad, Northeast, across town to Tenley Circle, Northwest. Last year her mother switched her out of the local school. "I thought it was racist to be only with blacks," Sasha says. At her new school, Deal Junior High, there are children with diverse backgrounds.

She clinks a token into the fare box. The X8 lurches west, toward the Capitol. She watches the white dome grow on the horizon and smiles. Next week at the inauguration, the soprano will stand outside the Capitol and sing with a hundred other children from the Washington Performing Arts Society's Children of the Gospel Mass Choir. At the swearing-in ceremony they will perform an original piece called "Let's Build a Bridge All Across America." The song is about putting aside differences, about forgetting O.J. and Rodney King, and about living in harmony.

The chorus is Sasha's favorite part:

Let's build a bridge all across America
The homeland of the brave and the free
A rainbow bridge all across America
Side by side, together you and me.

Sasha belts it out during the rainbow part. At the inauguration, she plans on singing those lines the loudest. She pictures people of different races looped arm in arm -- a multicolor human chain strung across the arc of a bridge. And as Sasha makes her own crossing -- bridging the city from one end to the other -- she talks about the gap. No one on the bus is white. When her mother moved the family here from London six years ago, she looked around and said, "Hey, where are all the white people?" Sasha remembers the time she brought a white girl home to play, the neighbors razzed her: "I said, `What's wrong with that?' They said, `Everything is wrong with that. White people see us and they call the police.' "

The composer of the inauguration song hopes his tune will help close that gap.

"We've been polarized as a nation for a long time," said Rickey Payton Sr., who wrote the lyrics and score. "We need an injection of something fresh to inspire us."

At the choir's first rehearsal last week at the New Bethel Church of God in Christ, Eric Torain, the programming director, warned the children: "Every camera is going to be on you. If you're scratching your ear or picking your nose while President Clinton is up there, any camera across the country could be zooming in on you."

Then Payton swung up from his Steinway and read the lyrics to the kids. "It's important that we understand and feel this," he implored. "It's a very powerful message we have to deliver."

Sasha couldn't resist. Along with two friends, she began giggle-singing, "It's a small world after all! It's a small world after all!"

This morning, though, her face is serious, a line etching her forehead where her night kerchief cuts across her brow. She watches the peaked roofs of Capitol Hill rise and fall in the windows and says: "I think about the neighborhoods: Peaceful. Bad. Would I like to live here?" she says.

Her lips are full. Her face is square -- the best shape for a face, she heard on television. She is 5-feet-7 and growing, stretching, she hopes, to 5-9. "I dream about being a light-skinned model, going across the catwalk," she says. She has the figure to model, she says. But she wants a complexion the color of walnut. Her mother says she is as brown as a coffee bean.

No matter. It's just one of her dreams. "I make things different in my mind," Sasha says. She changes them in her imagination. She'll stare at a popular kid and warp his face as if he were unpopular. She'll tromp downstairs to her bedroom -- a cinder-block basement with no heat -- and call it "Paradise Island." And at the inauguration, Sasha plans to look up at President Clinton and turn him into a regular man. She'll picture him ringing up a bill as a grocery cashier, she says. After work, he would eat barbecue by the river with his family.

The X8 bus rolls into Union Station. Sasha steps off, breathing cold air and fumes. Her jaw dips into her collar. She curls her fingers and pockets them. She walks toward the giant American flag draping the station's arch -- red stripes, white stripes, sharply separated.

"It makes me think of black and white," she says. "Instead of blending in like a rainbow."

Sasha boards the Metro's Red Line, shouldering in with the business suits and striding blue pumps. Sometimes, she'll sit and practice the "Build a Bridge" song in her head. She'll review her mother's coaching: "Sing with your mouth open. Don't strain the high notes." Her mother wants her to shine. Sasha has been in the choir for two years; she hopes her musical talent will win her a scholarship to college.

"This is it," she says, as the word "Tenleytown" jerks into focus.

She rides up the escalator and says in a soft voice, "I'm not really happy with the way the world is." All the hatred, man against man. "It's been happening since Jesus's time -- and that's a long time."

She crunches across a snowy field and into her school, a grand brick building with sun-glazed windows. It is 8 a.m.; she has been traveling for an hour. Classes are about to begin, and kids of all stripes scuttle through the halls. Strange thing about the school, Sasha says -- at recess, the white kids sit by the stairs and gab, while the black kids hang out across the lot.

"Maybe in a thousand years, or maybe in a hundred years," she believes, "we won't even think about color."

She climbs the stairs to choir practice. In the meantime, she is going to sing.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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