Charlotte Collett, Interviewed by Christian Stegall, November 21, 2016
Location of Interview: Oneonta, New York
Charlotte Collett was born in Harlem, New York in 1951. She grew up in government housing during the 1950s and 60s, and attended the State University of New York at Old Westbury, Columbia Teacher’s College, and received a PhD from New York University. In addition to teaching in New York City public schools for over 30 years, she has played the violin and sung the blues around the world. In this story, she talks about preparing her daughter for the world.
CC: 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. 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.