CGP Community Stories

Charlotte Collett, November 21, 2016

Title

Charlotte Collett, November 21, 2016

Subject

Woolworths
Stephen Foster Housing Projects
Chitlins
115 Street between Lenox and 5th Avenue
Bodega
Malcolm X
Miriam Makeba
Jean-Michel Basquiat
God
Black
Gospel Music
Sewing
Ms. Giddings
Harlem
Brooklyn
Music and Art High School

Description

Mrs. Charlotte Collett was born in Harlem, New York in 1951 She is the daughter of Charles Brown, a barber and Hazel Campbell, a dress maker. Growing up in government housing, during the 1950s and 1960s, Mrs. Collett learned the realities of growing up as a black woman in mid-century America. She persevered through these tough times with the love and guidance of her mother, teachers, and friends. Along the way, her hard work and dedication to social justice led her to cross paths with such Civil Rights greats as Malcolm X.

Education has played a major role in Mrs. Charlotte Collett’s life. After graduating from high school, Mrs. Charlotte Collett attended the State University of New York at Old Westbury where she graduated in 1974. Afterwards she attended Columbia Teacher’s College and received a master’s degree, and then followed that with a PhD from New York University. Before she earned her doctorate, she obtained many New York State certifications which allowed her to teach in New York City Public Schools for over 30 years. Her services and dedication touched many lives from non-English speakers to at-risk teens.

Mrs. Charlotte Collett is also an amazing musician. From her childhood where she practiced violin to her adult life where she sings the blues, music has taken Mrs. Collett many places around the world. She has performed in France on many occasions and she has produced four cds.

I interviewed Mrs. Collett at her home in Oneonta, New York. Many of her experiences reflect the larger story of black women growing up in late-twentieth-century America. She was excited to share her story and hopes that it will one day help someone. In the transcript, I have edited for grammatical purposes. Therefore, researchers should consult the audio recording to understand other vocalizations and speech patterns.

Creator

Christian Stegall

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2016-11-21

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
27.4mB
audio/mpeg
26.7mB
image/jpeg
2.00mB

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Image

Identifier

16-013

Coverage

Upstate New York
Oneonta, NY
1951-2016

Interviewer

Christian Stegall

Interviewee

Charlotte Collett

Location

58 Elm St.
Oneonta, NY

Transcription

CC = Charlotte Collett
CS = Christian Stegall

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

CS:
This is the November 21, 2016 interview of Mrs. Charlotte Collet by Christian Stegall for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Community Stories Oral History Project, recorded at her home in Oneonta New York. So Mrs. Collett, tell me about your parents.
CC:
Well, Charles Brown was my father. Hazel Brown, Hazel Campbell was her maiden name, was my mother. He was a barber and my mother was a dress maker. They were both from Florida. I had two younger sisters and a younger brother. So there were four of us and a much older sister that my mother had before me. She was told that she would never have any more children and after 17 years, she got pregnant with me. So, I guess, never listen to doctors, huh? [laughter] And then, she had three others [children] after that.
CS:
So can you talk more about your siblings, growing up with them?
CC:
They were kind of a pain. I grew up as the oldest in the house so I had the most responsibility. When we had to go to the laundrmoat, I organized that. I was the one my mother depended on and I guess felt the most guilt all the time. I thought that she was a powerful person, and when I became an adult, I was amazed that she was so petite. As a kid, I always thought she had God on her side and if I got caught doing something, I would definitely want to be caught by God not my mother because he was more forgiving [laughter]. We grew up in the projects in Harlem; the Stephen Foster Housing Projects which later became the Martin Luther King, Jr. Towers. The elementary school was around the corner; P.S. 184 maybe? We walked to school. It was ok. I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t seem much aware of what was happening. I remember a sewing machine being on the table and I asked my mother how to thread the sewing machine. And she showed me how to thread the sewing machine and from then on I was sewing. At the five and dime, it was called Woolworth’s at the time, long before your time, we’d go around and get dress patterns and skirt patterns and lay things out and cut out forms and then sew. So a lot of the curtains hanging in this house, I’ve actually put together. [They’re] not very sophisticated but it’s caused me to sew and make things. Being aware of how to keep things pretty, how to fix things up, I learned that from my mother. We used to walk to church, All Souls Episcopal Church on Sunday. We used to go to Sunday school and we sang in the choir, and that got us off to singing. When I grew up, that’s what you did. You sang, you sewed, you listened to your mama. My mother was an excellent cook. She grew up in Florida and spent part of her time in a place called Ybor City in Florida where there were a lot of Cubans, so she would cook black beans and yellow rice and a lot of Latin American food as well as the southern stuff, chitlins and collard greens and all kind of stuff that people say they don’t eat now. I remember giving a party and I cooked chitlins and hog maws and I had to beat everybody back from the stove. Nobody ate pork, right? So, I learned some things there. Even though I don’t cook like that much now. We went to a friend’s house in Paris; her father’s from the Caribbean, she was actually raised in France. She went somewhere [to buy spices], because [there are] Africans and many [diverse groups] living in Paris. I got some seasoning and seasoned those greens the way I remember as a little kid. And there I was eating greens that I remembered tasted like they came out of Harlem. I was sitting in Paris, France eating those greens, and she kept looking at my face like, “Are you happy now?” [laughter] And I was. So I don’t remember much about my siblings except being responsible for them and feeling like I needed to take care of them and that I needed to do what my mother needed me to do. My parents split up and I remember just one day he wasn’t there, and after that, being afraid that I would wake up and my mother wouldn’t be there either. So I bent over backwards to try to cooperate with her.
[TRACK 1, 5:53]

CS:

Your parent’s split. Did that affect life growing up in Harlem?

CC:

Well yeah, because she tried to work but couldn’t because she had four little kids. Of course there was no childcare at that time. I mean this was the ’50s. There was less money, but there was more peace in the apartment. It was more tranquil. Life was better when he wasn’t there, because it was more peaceful. But there was definitely an economic aspect to it, and so we grew up on public assistance and before food stamps there was government surplus food. I remember the peanut butter and the cheese and the powdered milk. That powdered milk was good and so was that cheese and that peanut butter. After that, we would go to food distribution centers and I don’t know if it was stuff that the government had left over from World War II or whatever, you know army surplus stuff. I guess when they got finished with all of that, then there came food stamps. We lived on 115 Street between Lenox and 5th Avenues and we would walk to what we would call East Harlem, to La Marqueta and we would buy fish and all kinds of stuff there. And I remember every Friday we had fish. I thought it was a religious thing. Every Friday we had fish, we didn’t eat meat. My mother would buy the fish and she would clean the fish. When I buy fish, it’s definitely cleaned by somebody else. She would clean the fish and fry it. I remember she would fry chicken. Now, I just season it the same way and put it in the oven, because even though my husband says he likes it when I grease up the stove and everything. He likes the chicken really fried [laughter]. I remember the food was really good. So I guess I was a sucker for just knowing what the expectations were in terms of behavior and for good cooking. So that’s part of the reason we are in France. The French can be irritating, but their food is good. So you know five/six o’clock is coming, dinner time is coming, and the good wine is coming. We say we know what our priorities are. We’re there to eat and drink and no matter how annoying they become or whatever is going on that day, it will be over soon and it will be meal time. One of the things we have learned how to do is to stop and have long lunches, because we are amazed at how long they eat for lunch, an hour, an hour and a half, two hours. Sometimes the post office [depending on the neighborhood] is closed. [inaudible]. So you learn just not to go to the post office at that time. You do everything around meals and everything around lunch and everything around your evening meal. I remember that good food, learning how to sew, and of course, to dance. We had a black and white TV. We just came back from Paris. On the flight back I watched Dreamgirls, the movie. I know, I can’t quite remember the name of it either. Jennifer Hudson was in it, Beyoncé Knowles was in it. It was made in 2006. It was about ten years ago.
[TRACK 1, 9:39]

CS:
You sure that it isn’t Dreamgirls?
CC:
Well, we saw Dreamgirls when it was on Broadway. I can’t remember that [inaudible] singer? I know that her first name was Jennifer too. We saw it when it was on Broadway. The movie was called Dreamgirls also? OK. They had a five boy group that was reminiscent of the Jackson 5. So when I was growing up in the projects, I remember Berry Gordy, the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Four Tops, and I remember a feeling of that was a feeling of pride. There was a feeling of pride because you saw all of these really talented black people singing and dancing and moving. That was a real source of pride in the ghetto. I also remember there were drugs in the ghetto, a lot of heroin. That kind of descended on the neighborhood at about the time of all the ’60s political activity. I remember H. Rap Brown and the Black Panthers, Malcolm X. Malcolm X used to speak on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 115th street. I remember leaving my project and going to the bodega across the street and he was right on the corner speaking. His mosque was on 116th Street and 7th Avenue. Mosque number 7 was right around the corner from where I grew up. So there was a lot of stuff going on, percolating. I went to a music and art high school. Before high school, I sang sometimes for shows in elementary school and we went to junior high school during the time in New York City where you studied an instrument. My sister studied the cello, and I studied the violin. Someone else studied the viola and we would get together in our project apartment, 20 West 115 Street Apartment 6G, and we’d get together in the living room and practice the string instruments. To this day, I love classical music because of that, singing, and church. I really love classical music, I love strings and Baroque music in particular. We used to practice and my violin teacher was Mr. Gilbert, he was a black man. We played in the orchestra and then eventually I played in the all-city orchestra in New York City. I remember one night performing and there was Mayor [John] Lindsay, who when there was a riot in Harlem, came up to Harlem and quieted the riot. He was popular among black people. So a lot of white people hated him for that, but he did walk the streets and quiet [them]. He just came out and asked people to stop and they stopped. There was music. There was politics growing up. There were worries about money. There were a lot of people on welfare. There were a lot of people getting government stuff. You knew that your life was different because you would turn on the television and there would be “Leave it to Beaver” and all of these little “perfect families” for the time; images of 1950s middle-class white America at the time. You knew that there was a big difference between how they were living and how we were living. You could see the disparities. Anyway, I played violin and sang in the chorus in middle school and then applied to Music and Arts High School and the High School of Performing Arts, which at that time was located on West 46th Street in the theater district. Music and Art was in Harlem near City College, so I ended up going there. In elementary school I had a guidance counselor named Mrs. Giddings. She was the only black professional who worked at the school. All of the other blacks worked in the cafeteria. There were no black teachers. The principal’s name was Mrs. Tuchman. She [Mrs. Giddings] recommended that I get a scholarship at something called the Metropolitan Music School, which was located off Central Park West in the 70s. One of the things I remember is there was a black secretary there, Mrs. Robinson, I think her name was. And Paul Robeson’s granddaughter was going to school there too. She was taking music lessons there. I decided to go to Music and Art instead of Performing Arts High School. They both are now combined both as Fiorello H. La Guardia School of Performing and the Arts. It’s now located at Lincoln Center in the Lincoln Center Area. I went to high school in Harlem and Miriam Makeba’s daughter was in my school. She went to Music and Art at that time. I just remember we organized something called “Music and Art Students against the War in Vietnam.” We joined with other high schools throughout the city to organize against the war. I was once told by one of my history teachers, that I was the best example of participatory democracy she had, because I was always out with my bullhorn or passing out leaflets. I worked with a girl named Laurie. I can’t remember her last name, but we would write flyers against the war [or] whatever political thing was going on at the time. We decided we would use at least two or three new vocabulary words, so we would learn something as we were writing our leaflets and stuff. So I went there and one day in homeroom I was asked by a student, because I was known as being politically active, if I would come to her to a meeting across the park, Morningside Park, on the other side, down in Harlem proper, and she asked me if I would be willing to tutor some black kids after school? I said, of course I would love to do that. I went with her to a meeting and it turned out to be some kids from SUNY, State University of New York at Old Westbury on Long Island. I met these students there and hadn’t thought much about going to college. College is something people have to talk to you about as you grow up. You have to have some kind of contact and know how to negotiate the world outside of your home. Someone has to kind of guide you there. At any event, I went to this meeting and I ended up visiting SUNY Old Westbury and ended up applying to SUNY Old Westbury. I got in. That’s how I got to college. That was an interesting experience. I was there for four years, and college wasn’t enough even then. I graduated in 1974, probably before you were born. I applied to Columbia Teacher’s College. Why? Because my boyfriend at the time, his ex-wife went there. I applied to a program called Student-Personnel Administration at Teacher’s College, Columbia University and that was to work in the dean area or student services in a college. I didn’t do much of that. I did get another master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages and then a professional diploma to run a school system. I should have taken six more credits and got a third master’s. I started teaching at an alternative high school in Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant]. I was teaching there maybe for three or four years. I don’t remember how long. I’ll have to look at my resume and see. I had a boss, the principal and the assistant principal I heard had applied for doctoral programs. I thought, “Wow! They’re not that smart.” I would not have applied. I thought I wasn’t that smart, so I wouldn’t apply. But I thought, “Wow! They could do it. Maybe I could.” So I applied and got in. It took about a dozen years, but I completed a PhD at NYU in International Education, [the] area of study [was] France. I don’t know what drew me to France really. I started studying French in middle school. My French teacher was a black man. I keep talking about black, because that was a big deal to have a black teacher. I had a black violin teacher and a black French teacher. Mrs. Giddings got me on my way in elementary school. The black guidance counselor who got me a partial scholarship to study music, so I studied classical piano as a result of this black woman who helped me. The woman that—we’ve just come back from France from a memorial mass. That’s sort of my thing—music. I met two African American musicians 25 years ago playing in Paris. A French blues player by the name of Guillaume—his nickname was Guillaume “Honky Tonk” Petite. At the time he was the best blues player in Paris. Last Spring, April 21, 2016, we did a show down in Marseilles, France. His wife is a therapist. He retired and relocated to Marseille. Jon was complaining a few years ago about it being too cold in Paris and he was getting too old. His bones—blah, blah, blah, blah, blah—so I said, “Why don’t you try Marseille?” I didn’t know anything about Marseille except the movie The French Connection which was filmed long before you were born. So I just said Marseille, plus I’d seen a couple of movies with Humphrey Bogart and he mentioned Marseille. In Casablanca, people came through Marseilles and then they got to North Africa and they were waiting to get to America. So I said [to Jon], “Go to Marseilles,” and it turns out Marseilles is this gorgeous place. It doesn’t have a great reputation, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful city in France. The food is delicious because it is France. So we ended up doing a blues show there and he’s sending me emails and nagging me now about “When are you coming back, because I’m trying to set up some more shows?” I need to respond, because at this point I’m now just trying to ride the coattails of people who still have that drive until I can get that spark again. I was teaching for 30 years in New York City public schools—English, Social Studies, French—I have several teaching licenses because I never wanted to be broke. See when you grow up poor, you know what I mean? At one point, I was doing two master’s at the same time. I had a notebook that said “Go to the uptown side [of the subway station] and get on the No. 2 [train] and get off.” I mean literally I was reading what I had to do. I was so tired. I didn’t let it stay in my brain and I was a lot younger. I’d go to the downtown side. I’d go to the uptown side and I was just going various places, getting whatever certifications I needed and everything to be certified. I’d get my license and get my tenure, because I always wanted to have a job. I had a Jewish friend once who said the same thing. She grew up poor and I think she’s probably going to work until she drops. Because she said once you grow up poor—I mean I guess you could go either way—but my thing was I didn’t want to be poor anymore and she didn’t want be poor anymore. We kind of understood that drive just to work. I was teaching in New York City in a school where kids learned how to cook: Food and Finance High School. One day, I was in a class with maybe 30 kids. I got a phone call. Thank God I had my dumb phone, my flip phone in the drawer. I saw that it was a 607 area code, so I picked it up like who’s calling me from upstate New York? It was the emergency room at Fox Hospital telling me that my husband was in the emergency room with blood on his brain. Someone overheard that conversation, ran up, told the principal, and they sent another teacher down to cover the class. I locked both cabinets, went to the hallway, and then tried to figure out what I was going to do next. Gretchen* was the only one I knew from up here. I called Dr. Gretchen Sorin. I called her in the hallway; my head was spinning. It just so happened that she had a conference in Tarrytown. She called her daughter and she told me to go cross town Manhattan. So I went out got some money [from] the machine and took a cab across town and there was Meredith raising her arms. I ran across the street, got into Meredith’s car and Meredith drove me to Tarrytown, New York. I got into Gretchen’s car and we drove for hours it seemed like to Cooperstown, because they transferred him from [from Fox Hospital in Oneonta] to Cooperstown. They couldn’t help him in Cooperstown and they knew that, but OK. It was 24 hours before he got help—a stroke. That day put us on a different trajectory. It was 17 days at Albany Med and then he was transferred down to Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan by ambulance. He was there for two weeks for acute therapy and sub-acute therapy at another hospital facility in Manhattan. We had an apartment in Brooklyn—thank God—half a block away from SUNY Downstate Medical Center, which is a good hospital. [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg was trying to close, but thank God [Mayor Bill] De Blasio came in and stopped that. It’s a teaching hospital so we had people coming in and helping him; he had to learn how to tie his shoes and button his shirt. You wouldn’t wish a brain injury on your worst enemy. You just wouldn’t. I mean the man couldn’t stand up straight. So that kind of changed what we were going to do, because originally we were going to retire here and write, blah, blah, blah. You know the whole thing. So that fall, he had therapy in the apartment then we started going over to SUNY Downstate for speech therapy, other things, and physical therapy. I got that call May 1st, 2013. That fall, I recorded those four CD’s. I decided to record most of what I’d studied and done. Then we started looking for houses in Albany to be near Albany Med, near the Amtrak, which we love because we can get down to the City in two and a half hours and be in midtown. There is a lot of our life that is still there. We just kind of want to be in a more cosmopolitan and diverse environment [than exists in our current community].
[TRACK 1, 28:05]

CS:

Going back to your husband. Can you tell me how you all met?

CC:


Yeah. I was at SUNY Old Westbury and I was taking the Long Island Railroad back into the city. I used to sometimes hitch rides from the train station at Old Westbury out to the campus. One day I recognized this person that was going to the campus. So I hitched a ride and that was him. He was like on another planet. I didn’t know at the time he was going through a separation. I hitched a ride to the campus. Then another time I was just on the platform of the Long Island Railroad going back into the city and he got on the platform and I recognized him again. We started talking on the train. On the ride in we exchanged numbers and stuff and we got together like that. That’s basically how we met on the platform of the Long Island Railroad. I was 22 years old. Then we decided to move in together in Brooklyn. We were looking in Manhattan but [even] then it was expensive. Now it’s just ridiculous. We told the real estate person Eva that we were thinking about moving into Brooklyn because it was cheaper. So she said, “Oh! In that case, I know somebody’s who’s renting a place in Brooklyn.” Turns out, it was her boyfriend who had a house—all of this stuff is chancy, right—he had a house, two duplex apartments.
[START OF TRACK 2, 0:00]

CC:

We went there and we rented from the next door neighbors because they were taking care of the house and it turns out it was the house in which Jean-Michel Basquiat was raised. Gérard Basquiat was the father. I have a Basquiat drawing which he sold me for five dollars. So I’ve got that. We became good friends of the family and we’re still friends with his sisters. His father has since passed on maybe three years ago. We went to that memorial service. We lived in his house for four years. That was about the time Jean-Michel started to become really famous. Then we bought a house three blocks away on Bergen Street. That was 553 Pacific Street; that was the Basquiat house. Then we went three blocks away to 404 Bergen Street in Brooklyn. Nobody was famous there. For the four years we lived at Pacific Street, the next door neighbors, Harry Reid and Howard Lewis were partners. They had a silk flower business on Atlantic Avenue and they worked—I think B. Altman’s, and I think B. Altman’s closed?—but anyway they sold silk flower arrangements at B. Altman’s. Howard Lewis came ringing the bell one day and said, “How would you like to give a party?” That’s a slick way of getting somebody to volunteer for something. I said, “Sure! Why not, sure I would love to give a party.” It turns out he wanted me to organize a dinner at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the 1st Atlantic Antic, which is the second largest street fair in the United States next to the West Indian Day Parade along Eastern Parkway. So this was the Atlantic Antic: this is the length of Atlantic Avenue from Fourth Avenue down to the river almost in between Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn Heights. So it was my job to go to all the food selling merchants and get them to donate food for this party. That was the 1st Atlantic Antic and that was maybe 42 years ago. We were involved in something called the Boerum Hill Association. That’s when we lived together on Pacific Street in the Basquiat House. Now you can’t touch anything in Boerum Hill. Then we went over to Park Slope. It was then called North Slope, but now it’s just Park Slope. [We] became involved over there marching every-so-often in the neighborhood to support safety and all that stuff. That was when the neighborhood was “up-and-coming,” but it felt more like down-and-going [laughter], but at the time it was “up-and-coming”. We were at a demonstration and walked over the Brooklyn Bridge—or whichever bridge that was; I think it was Brooklyn—in support of the family of Amadou Diallo when he was shot and killed in the Bronx. We did a lot. We were always active in the community. When George Wallace was running for president, this was when I was in high school. Okay—he was speaking at Madison Square Garden. I was at Music and Art and I told my mother I was going to the Donnell Library, because that was the music library. Actually I was going to the demonstration and I didn’t want to tell her I was going. So we went down there and we were running—I don’t know, the cops starting chasing a bunch of people, young people; I could run then—down 34th Street and then we got cordoned off and ended up on 35th Street or 36th Street. Coming back we ran west and we were coming back east on 36th Street and there was bus after bus of black cops sitting in the busses. They were angry. They were supposed to help keep the peace, but because they were black and because George Wallace was a racist, they had the black cops sitting in a bus. I’ll never forget it. This was like 36th Street between like 8th Avenue and 7th Avenue. I eventually came home that night and my mother was very calmly sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper. I found out a couple of days later she and my older sister had been at the same demonstration. She hadn’t told me. So all of the Vietnam War stuff when I was growing up and all the Black Power stuff when I was growing up, and the Civil Rights stuff—I went down with my church and heard Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “I Have a Dream Speech.” I witnessed the Poor People’s encampment, and we just continued that activity. Jon, before he met me, was involved in the anti-war movement. We just kind of continued that activity when we got to Brooklyn with fixing up the neighborhood. Then we moved over to Bergen Street and we ended up [on] a house tour [and] our apartment was on a house tour on Pacific Street. Going back to all of that sewing stuff that I grew up doing; we did a beautiful job decorating that apartment. Then we bought a house on Bergen Street and that ended up in what I think [was] the Norwegian Lights. They gave it a name, but it was a house tour. We had a piano player, because I had managed to take my savings and buy a baby grand piano because I grew up struggling, remembering my mother struggling to get a piano so I could take piano lessons. I knew my mother would be proud if I had a baby grand. One of the issues we’re having now is that I want a house big enough to have my baby grand piano. That’s a big discussion because I grew up with a piano. It was important to my mother. I also grew up during a time when to have a baby grand meant you had arrived in some way. I guess a Cadillac did too, but we don’t care about cars. We drive an old beater, but we like a nice houses and things like that, china. We sold that house. We lived in Brooklyn from like ’74 and we left in 2006. That’s a long time, right? We came here while I was still working in the city, because there are good jobs in New York City, very good jobs in New York City. Like you said, you go where the jobs are. I was teaching, I had tenure, and I knew people down there so I was here one year and went back to New York. I made one phone call and I was getting phone calls to come back to New York, which I did and my salary more than doubled. I stayed until Johnathan had a stroke. I found a job near the Port Authority [Bus Station]. I would run down 9th Avenue, jump on the bus to Oneonta Friday night and then get on the bus back to New York City on Sunday. It was always kind of sad to leave [my husband in Oneonta], but I was grateful I had a job. I was reading the New York Times all the time and folks were not doing so well. So I was very lucky making $100,000. I was getting on that bus and praying my rosary and thanking God that I had a job. I hope I’m not just rambling on.
CS:
You’re fine. Have you faced any challenges being an interracial couple?
CC:
We have fewer problems in France, especially places like Paris and New York City. Everybody is in New York City. I guess some people here [Oneonta] might not like it. We just want to be now where diversity isn’t a novelty, where it’s just normal. I was raised in New York City. It’s normal for there to be all kinds of different people with whatever head wraps and whatever you’re wearing. I was raised seeing it on the subway. Now Harlem’s full of white people and full of French people. I went to my cousin’s church. At the time she was going to the Abyssinian Baptist Church. So she asked me to come one Sunday. I came, but there were all of these buses on the street. I’m thinking, “Why are there all of these buses here? What’s going on here?” So I go in, I’m still oblivious. I’m sitting down stairs, I’m looking at my cousin and listening to the music. Then—what is his name, the minister at Abyssinian Baptist church? I’ll think of his name…Calvin Butts—comes out and he says, “How many people [are] here from France?” I looked up. The entire balcony stood up. We’ve got French friends. Had to take a French [friend] up to Sylvia’s. We had to take her to a gospel service with gospel music. One of my teachers from the Alliance Française in Paris came with here three kids—I knew here before she had her kids. They’re now in college. Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. She came over with her three kids. We got her an Airbnb apartment in a black woman’s house in Fort Greene. I told her to go to the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church on Atlantic Avenue. There’s a famous minister there, I can see his face, I just can’t remember his name [Reverend Herbert Daughtry]. I think he has retired. I called the church and said, “Do you guys do gospel music?” They said, “Yes.” “Because I’ve got French friends coming and they’d like to hear some music on Sunday. So instead of sending them to Harlem, it would be easier for them since they’re staying in Fort Greene to come to your church on Atlantic Avenue.” They got there early. After the service, they asked who—because they knew there were visitors, who they was visiting—and the five of them stood up because it’s her husband and their three kids. They were invited back for lunch. They gave them a hymnal and she’s now singing gospel in France. I tended to make friends with my teachers, my French teachers in New York at the Alliance Française in Manhattan and also in Paris. Interesting people, interesting schools. People come from all over the world. So, yeah, I guess we’ve faced challenges. My family was opposed to it at the beginning because they come from the South. What else could he be doing but taking advantage of me. Now after 43 years no one is saying anything anymore. His mother, before she died, said to me, I was helping her into the bathroom. She was sick, had cancer. She said, “My son seems very happy. I know him very well and he seems to be very happy. I want to thank you for making my son happy.” That was before she died. People did come around. I frankly liked his mama because you knew where you stood. She was very funny and had a good since of humor, a really good sense of humor. But you knew where you stood and she wasn’t full of it. I’d rather know where you’re coming from. I’d rather respect you. I don’t have to like you; I just want to respect you. If I understand where you’re coming from—and we don’t have to agree. You know what I’m saying? We don’t have to agree. If I had my druthers I would prefer to respect you. I’d know you were fairly true to your word and I know where I stand and that’s OK. Then we can move forward from there. But we have had our challenges. Maybe we still do, but I’m now more focused on what I’m about the second half of this show. I’ve been watching [President Barack] Obama very carefully. The “brother’s’ got class. I once saw him do this—brush off his shoulders—and with everything he’s had to tolerate this last eight years, he is being so gracious and a perfect example of class. I think just to internalize a lot of that—you know who you are, you know what you’ve accomplished—I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody anymore. If I ever was, it was always I was always the one setting the bar for myself and trying to best myself. That’s important to understand that I’m standing on someone else’s shoulders. So you can’t spend too much time feeling sorry for yourself. I’ve got no time for that. My ancestors had it a lot worse. When I pray and thank God for things, it’s always about my ancestors, and grandmother, and my mother, and everything I was taught and the fact that they were strong and intelligent people. My duty is to carry it forward. That was one of the reasons I kind of liked teaching school. I liked New York City and that’s when I noticed a lot. After one year here, I was like the first black teacher any of these students ever had at SUCO [State University of New York-College at Oneonta] up here. It was just better being in New York where that wasn’t the first battle that you had to fight. That was ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. You definitely want to be in places where there are a lot of different people. Marseille is very mixed. The people are gorgeous. It’s not just the people you see in Cannes or some place like that. Those people are good looking. I think it’s the sun. They’re calmer, it’s the south, and they’re smiling more. It’s a little less stressed. They’re all kinds of people in Paris. I’m very comfortable around different kinds of people and I prefer that. We have New York City. We have Albany. We have Paris, which I miss sometimes and Marseille. We’ve come to the conclusion that we like cities. We like diversity. It’s interesting; you learn more. Frankly as long as I can learn something from you, we’re cool; everything else I have to pay to learn. If I can learn something for free, I’m good with that.
CS:
You’ve spoken a lot about the influence of African American people in your life. How has that affected your notion of blackness today?
[TRACK 2, 18:00]

CC:
Well, my mother was dignified. She was a lady. I think part of my anger—anger at the time of the ’60s, everybody was angry—I didn’t think she got a fair shake. I had to somehow get over that. I decided very early that I was not going to be angry with my father because if I didn’t like him, then that meant I wasn’t going to like half of who I was. I decided that at like 16 or 17 years old. I had to move forward. I saw him some before he died so that was good. I remember having a relative who could sew. A lot of the people that I knew could do something. She made me a nice fur hat with pieces of fur and she did it by hand. The priests at my church, were from the Caribbean, so I grew up in church with black people, dignified. The music, was always a source of pride and release, because that’s what we had. I tried to raise Hazel, our daughter whom we adopted, with a sense of who she is as a black person in America, a black person in the world, and a sense of responsibility for what she has to do. Just take it to the next level. Whatever that level is, she has to be the best of whatever she can be, not for anybody else but for herself—and also for me too. I’ve got to admit that. I’m going to keep hitting that hammer on the head. I used to tell her read the paper, read the New York Times. You’ll see we’re at the top of the food chain and our responsibility at the top of the food chain is to keep moving and then seeing the opportunity that is here. I used to tell my students that all of the time. It’s an interesting perspective being black because you see life from a lot of different angles, partially because you have to protect yourself in different environments and different situations. You have to learn how to codeswitch in order to protect yourself. You have to project your job. You have to protect your ass just in the street. You are polite, smiling, and always watchful because there is always a subtitle going on in your head about what’s happening on the surface and what’s really happening. I can see trouble coming at me. I really can. You learn that sixth sense, more than Jon does because he hasn’t had to survive the same way. It’s something I tried to teach Hazel. It’s something my mother, who was also named Hazel, which is why we named Hazel “Hazel.” Paris is my daughter Hazel’s middle name for, of course, Paris, France. You’re polite, you smile, because it confuses people. It gives you a chance to really process what’s going on and what your next move should be. How should you negotiate this situation? It’s seeing life from a different perspective. I used to say it’s seeing life from the bottom and then you see just various grades of where you want to be in that life, where you want to put yourself, and what you have to do to get there. Being black, I think, gives you strength. It makes you strong. My mother used to have a saying “If it don’t kill you, it’ll make you fat.” You heard that one? [laughing] Yeah, if it don’t kill you, it’ll make you fat. You just keep getting up and you keep going. I think that’s one of the reasons Hillary Clinton’s so popular among black women, because you know the beating she’s had to take. You also know the beating Michelle Obama has had to take. So you just keep going. That’s where I draw my strength every day. Working in the public school system in New York I learned to pray again because you have to do that to survive. It also helps you in every area of your life. Knowing who you are from the inside helps you grow and move. It also helps you see beauty around you and in other black people around you. All I really see is beauty. It’s amazing. When you’re that sure of yourself, you can reach out and be kind to other people no matter who they are.
CS:
How has that affected your experiences from working with Haitian children and children of color?
CC:
That was also by chance. When I went to work at this alternative high school in Bed-Stuy, that was when the Haitians were coming over by boat. So part of how I got around to my dissertation topic, which was how France incorporates non-white citizens into its fabric of life through the schools, we just started getting people who didn’t speak English or didn’t speak English very well. The other Haitian kids who had been here would call them “just comes.” I just got a license in ESL because I was dealing with students who couldn’t speak English. I worked with a Canadian company and got the GED in French. A French GED [text book], I introduced that into the New York City State public school system and got it into a French bookstore at the time. The French and European bookstore at the time was located at Rockefeller Plaza. They probably couldn’t afford the rent anymore so they’re not there, but I got them introduced into the public school system in New York City with a GED in French. Then I got involved with the French Embassy in New York and they have a program through the cultural services—the French Embassy in New York City—has a program called the French Heritage Language Program. They help acclimate students from French speaking, from “Francophone” countries from Africa and Haiti to the American way of life through the use of French. They’re establishing schools throughout New York City, D.C., the Tri-State Area, Connecticut, and New Jersey. The kids do part of their academic work in French and part of their academic work in English, so they are dual language program schools. I kind of got involved with them and that’s been productive. I kind of just stepped in that situation and then learned from that. Then I became what they called the French coordinator at Ashes Program which was a GED [high school equivalency=General Educational Development] program, the largest in the city. I went on from there. I never wanted to run a school though. I was licensed to do so but never wanted to run a school. I liked being in the classroom. I liked being with the kids even though it was aggravating. I liked the energy of the kids and I learned from them. One of the things I learned in my last job which was good because when John got sick he had been the one doing most of the cooking—I actually learned how to be comfortable in the kitchen. There were five professional kitchens at Food and Finance High School. The kids didn’t really like to conjugate verbs, but they liked to cook. I learned, number one how to respect people who could do things that I couldn’t do and who could do things—they couldn’t do what I wanted them to do a lot of times, but I figured someone’s going to learn something so I learned how to cook. That was a very interesting experience. Helping kids get to professional cooking schools like CIA [Culinary Institute of America], Johnson & Wales—there’s a whole other experience out there. When I interviewed for the job, I said something about vocational education and the principal looked at me and said, “That’s not p.c. anymore.” But teaching kids skills—not everybody can sit through six hours—kids need to learn skills so they can get out and get work. They actually let the kids do internships—we were in midtown Manhattan; that’s like “restaurantville.” Kids had all kinds of internships and doing a lot of really useful things. As a result, I’m very pro what they call school-to-work programs or vocational educational programs.
CS:
Well, Mrs. Collett I want to thank you for this interview today and I hope you have a wonderful evening.
CC:
Oh OK. And I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving.
CS:
Thank you.

Duration

30:00 - Track 1
29:15 - Track 2

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbps

Time Summary

Track 1, 05:53 – Life in Harlem
Track 1, 28:05 – Meeting her husband
Track 2, 18:00 – Notion of blackness

Files

Citation

Christian Stegall, “Charlotte Collett, November 21, 2016,” CGP Community Stories, accessed May 24, 2017, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/271.