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 her childhood in Harlem.
CC: 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. That 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, between that and singing in 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.