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Coming into college from high school is overwhelming for a multitude of reasons, but one of the most common fears amongst incoming freshmen is the workload. This was definitely a fear of mine coming into Hopkins as well, and for that reason, I felt intimidated by courses that were tagged as “upper-level undergraduate” or ones that just seemed out of my comfort zone. What I’ve learned this semester is that it’s important to take the classes that seem difficult to you, because you never know what you can handle until you try.

Since I am double majoring in writing seminars and English, I am required to take at least nine courses in the English department, but also two in the history department. So, as I was browsing SIS (Student Information Services, i.e., the online site where course registration takes place), I came across a class called Billie Holiday and American Culture.

Picture of the course description for Hist 334 on Blackboard

The description for the course was only two sentences long. It read, “a course introducing students to the life, times, and music of Billie Holiday. We will read biographies, autobiographies, novels, and listen to music.” Since the course was cross-listed in both the history and English department, I figured it would be a great way to combine two requirements while learning more about a singer that interested me. Despite the fact that it was tagged as “upper-level undergraduate” and it met only once a week for two hours and twenty minutes (I wasn’t used to this because most lectures only meet for fifty minutes at a time), I decided to take on this challenge.

However, it wasn’t an easy transition at all.

Over Intersession, the professor sent out an email with our first assignment which was due before class began. We were required to read an essay called “The City that Bleeds” written by himself, and to watch “The Corner,” a miniseries directed by Charles Dutton and written by David Simon. Then, we were required to post a response on Blackboard, which we were to do weekly for the rest of the semester. At first, I felt discouraged. The miniseries had eight episodes each an hour long, and I didn’t feel confident in my written response. I even remember calling my mom in a panic that I wouldn’t finish the assignment on time. Nevertheless, I completed the assignment, submitted it, and prepared for class discussion the next day.

The following weeks of the semester went along fine. As each week passed, I was getting more and more comfortable with the workload and the discussions that followed. We would read about two or three books/excerpts, listen to a few discs from Holiday’s album, and sometimes even watch a movie for Thursday’s class. Even the presentations went fine! Then, we transitioned into the next part of the semester–the research portion. The research portion of the semester was split into two parts. The first part involved our class working together as a team to construct a map that detailed what Baltimore looked like during the time in which Billie Holiday lived there. Each student was to choose a specific year. I chose 1928–the year before Holiday moved from Baltimore to New York. I paged through newspaper articles on ProQuest in The Afro-American and The Baltimore Sun and compiled a list of ten articles with annotations that worked together to paint a picture of what life was like in Baltimore in 1928. I found really interesting articles, including one on an event that took place two minutes from her home!

For the second portion, we were tasked with choosing a specific topic on which we were to conduct our own research projects. I decided to combine my love of writing with my newfound interest in jazz music, so I titled my research project “On Jazz Music: The Relationship Between Accessibility and Jazz Critique.” My topic was on how the literature surrounding jazz music reflected its seemingly subversive origins, and its overall acceptance as a musical form as the 20th century progressed. The research took a lot of work. We took field trips to The Maryland Historical Society and set up meetings with The Special Collections at Hopkins, and I even had to get in touch with the Enoch Pratt Free Library to find H.L. Mencken’s critiques on jazz music. Below are pictures of two archives that I used in my research. The first is of a map titled “What to See in Baltimore” that featured a red line that tourists should follow. Some of the stops on the map included the Peabody Conservatory and Fort McHenry, but the area that is shown under the magnifying glass is the region of Baltimore in which Billie Holiday resided as a child. The tourist map skips over this part of Baltimore because the city was very segregated during the time, and Pennsylvania Avenue, a hub for jazz music, was deemed undesirable compared to Peabody. On the right is a picture of the original cast of Shuffle Along, the first musical written and produced by African-Americans, courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Zoomed in picture of Holiday's neighborhood in Baltimore on "What to See in Baltimore" map Picture of the original production of Shuffle Along, Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

Although our research was centered on Billie Holiday and her legacy, it wasn’t limited to her alone. To gain an all-encompassing understanding of her life we had to research other elements of American culture as well. After listening to her records, reading biographies, looking at oral histories, and meeting with people who lived in Baltimore during her time, each of us gained an increased knowledge of the history of Baltimore, jazz music, and the way in which the foundations of entertainment back then were created and are relevant today. This then allowed us to place Holiday in the context of her time. The work we did all semester culminated in a presentation on our research findings to the rest of the Hopkins community that took place at MSE Library on the last day of classes.

Picture of the information sign for our final presentations in MSE Library

Poster for our research presentations in MSE Library.

After what was a successful and rewarding semester of exploration into American history, jazz music, and literature through studying Billie Holiday and her legacy, our professor, Professor Jackson, is currently working on a book on Holiday’s life in the city that acknowledges the research we conducted in class. I can’t wait to read it.

So, to answer the overarching question: Is Hopkins hard? Yes. It is challenging both mentally and intellectually but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve learned an invaluable amount from taking this class that I thought would be too difficult for me, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed. Though I spent a lot of time doing readings and research for this class, I learned more than I could even imagine and I’ve even found a new favorite singer in Billie Holiday! Side note, I highly recommend listening to her live performance of “Blue Moon” in Cologne, 1954.