Ask An Americanist

Ask an Americanist: Dr Amanda Bellows

Amanda Brickell Bellows is a lecturer in history at The New School. Her upcoming book American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination will be out with UNC Press in June 2020 and is available for pre-orders on Amazon.


What brought you to your PhD topic that resulted in your upcoming monograph, American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination?


American slavery and Russian serfdom were two contemporaneous systems of servitude that lasted from the 1600s through the mid-1800s. My interest in comparing slavery and serfdom grew while I was an undergraduate at Middlebury College. There, I took compelling courses on Russian and Southern history and literature where I noticed the similarities between the ways in which Russians and Americans responded to the abolition of serfdom and slavery through cultural production. In graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I decided to write a dissertation about how Americans and Russians depicted slavery and serfdom in mass-oriented textual and visual sources between 1861 and 1915. My dissertation formed the basis of my book, American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination (UNC Press).


Would you be able to give us a quick summary of the book?

American Slavery and Russian Serfdom in the Post-Emancipation Imagination is an expansive book that looks at the ways in which Americans and Russians represented slavery and serfdom. It covers the fifty years that followed abolition in Russia (1861) and the United States (1865). Each chapter studies different portrayals of African Americans and Russian peasants in sources ranging from oil paintings and advertisements to fiction and poetry. I argue that these representations shaped collective memories of slavery and serfdom, affected the development of national consciousness, and influenced public opinion as Russian peasants and African American freedpeople strove to exercise their newfound rights.


What do you think is the greatest benefit of taking a transnational approach to slavery/emancipation studies? 

There is so much to be gained from looking at slavery and emancipation from a transnational or comparative perspective. The history of slavery is by nature global; slavery has existed in countries and societies from ancient times through the present day. By applying a transnational or comparative approach, we can discern the connections or similarities between seemingly different forms of servitude across time and place. In addition, we can identify major differences between forms of slavery that might appear similar on the surface.


What is/what will your next project be on?

Right now, I am working on a few projects that include a new book proposal, journal articles, and an essay for a forthcoming book. At least one of these will be transnational in nature: an article examining the links between American and British activists fighting for black rights and women’s suffrage during the post-emancipation era.


If you could choose a different time period/place to study, what would it be? 

What a fun question! If only we all had endless time and resources for language training and travel… One of the courses I often teach is about the history of global slaveries. In preparing for this class, I am always glad to have the chance to learn new material that is outside of my specialty. It has been eye-opening to uncover more about the history of slavery in the ancient world and about how slavery tragically still persists our world today.