Lion’s Roar’s Pamela Ayo Yetunde talks to Buddhist documentary film writer Anne Seidlitz about PBS’ Becoming Frederick Douglass, which tells the story of one of the most recognized figures in U.S. Black History.
One of the greatest known and recognized figures in U.S. Black History is abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass (1818 –1895). When I learned that a Buddhist practitioner, Anne Seidlitz, wrote the script for the 2022 PBS documentary Becoming Frederick Douglass, I had to watch it to see how a Buddhist might write about Douglass. After watching the documentary, I was so impressed that I had to ask for an opportunity to meet Seidlitz. The interview below demonstrates her wide-ranging expertise in African American culture, as well as American cultural and social history.
Anne Seidlitz is an award-winning script, treatment, and narration writer for documentaries. Her work has been widely broadcast on networks such as PBS and HBO. Seidlitz is currently writing a book about the jazz pianist Hampton Hawes, and modern jazz mid-century.
—Pamela Ayo Yetunde
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: What does being a Buddhist or a Buddhist practitioner have to do with your choice to write the script for Becoming Frederick Douglass?
Anne Seidlitz: Well, I didn’t actually choose to write the script! I was chosen by the director and producer, based on my background of writing films and other things about Black history and culture. But I would say writing a script on Frederick Douglass was really the honor of a lifetime, given his stature in Black history and political thought. It’s fair to say that he was the first nationally — and also internationally — recognized Black leader in America’s history. And as I was writing the script it occurred to me that I couldn’t think of anyone among subsequent Black leaders or activists who didn’t hold Douglass in the highest regard. So it was an honor, but also a challenge, as you want to do your best when you’re dealing with someone this important, and so unimpeachable in his views and conduct and life. So I tried to pull out all the stops, in terms of trying to present the truest picture of Douglass possible.
I really do think Frederick Douglass was some kind of awakened being who came here to do exactly what he did.
As far as being a Buddhist and working on this film, I would say there really wasn’t anything about Douglass’ life or his thought that would be seen as inconsistent with Buddhist ideas. As far as I could tell and many agree — he was a selfless, fearless, confident, dignified, insightful, and a deeply caring person — all those things that are so central to Buddhist ideals. So as a human being I think he resonated with me as someone who was exemplary in many ways. I mean, I always knew about Douglass, even as a child, and so he already occupied a place of respect and admiration in my mind. But as I wrote the script he only grew in stature in my mind. I really do think he was some kind of awakened being who came here to do exactly what he did, which was to help free 3 million people held in bondage in this country, and then set their lives and the lives of their descendants on a better path — although we still have a long way to go in fulfilling that promise.
Douglass in his lifetime also did more than play a central role in emancipating the enslaved, he also transformed the rest of America’s — or much of its — thinking about who Black people were in major ways. Which he did as an orator, a writer, and a public figure. Just the image of Douglass in photographs was a major corrective (other than presidents, he was the most photographed American in the 19th century, after Mark Twain.) Douglass’ was absolutely as famous during his lifetime as Martin Luther King Jr. is in ours. So I think from a Buddhist perspective, Douglass was someone who through his activity in the world helped alleviate the suffering of millions of people, which puts him completely in line with the mahayana ideal of “May I free all beings.”
What impact did your Buddhist identity or Buddhist practice have on how you chose to write the script?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t think I really brought anything different to the writing of this script than other things I’ve written, other than as I said really trying to do the absolute best I could (which isn’t to say I don’t do that with other projects). But that being said, every writer brings their own “biases” to the subject at hand in terms of what they choose to emphasize. So as a Buddhist I think I was really interested in how Frederick Douglass helped people, the positive impacts he had on the larger society, and his general philosophy of life. And also the way his mind worked. Whereas someone more interested in politics or the history of slavery, for example, might emphasize those subjects more.
As a Buddhist I think I was concerned with getting across the heart of his goodness as a person, and the good that he did in the world, and all those qualities mentioned before. In other words, to put across that this truly exceptional person lived in America, who happened to be Black, and that he encapsulated in one person remarkably high levels of sanity, intelligence, morality, and dedication. And that Douglass, this person who was born enslaved, had an exceptionally accurate view of what America really is, and insisted that we be faithful to it — that it’s supposed to be a place where freedom, equality, and the rights of every person to pursue happiness exists. So all those conceptions about America that Douglass held, are nothing that I would argue about, being a Buddhist.
With Douglass, his accomplishments were so vast and seismic — I mean he really changed the course of American history, and in many ways was “a person for the ages” — and his own life was so dramatic and at times heart-wrenching, that as a writer I felt my job was to tie all that together into a cohesive and dramatic narrative, and make sure that people really got who he was, and what his lasting significance continues to be.
There are many photographs used in this documentary. Can you identify one that influenced what you wrote and what did you decide to write upon viewing it?
I think the photograph that was really emblazoned in my mind as I wrote — and even before actually, as I had a postcard of it on my mantle a few years ago — was the one taken in 1850 when he was 32. The photograph — I think it was actually a daguerreotype — conveys so many emotions at once, and conveys such power. There’s this smoldering anger, but also sadness. And feeling of defiance and indignation but also immense dignity. You have to remember that people had different ideas about photography then, which was a new medium: they actually thought that a photograph could contain something of a person’s soul. So you see that here — the picture radiates an intense sense of presence and directness. He almost seems to be making a demand on the viewer, like “what are you doing about it?”
Interestingly, the photograph was dated sometime in 1850, which was the year the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in Congress — which was probably the biggest setback for the anti-slavery movement in decades. As described in the documentary, the Fugitive Slave Act gave ordinary citizens as well as federal marshals the power to arrest any Black person they even suspected of being an escaped slave. So suddenly everyone was at risk all over the country. This was a turning point for Douglass, as it made him even more militant, and convinced him unequivocally that slavery would not end without violence, probably in the form of war. (Douglass famously predicted the Civil War). And even though he called himself a “peace man”, at around this time he publicly stated that it would be justifiable for someone to kill anyone attempting to arrest a Black person in a free state — that that would quash the Act. So this photograph captures him at a very angry time.
Douglass created himself and his path — in his case the path to freedom.
It’s also important to remember in looking at any of the photographs of Douglass, that images of Black men at the time were not supposed to look like this at all — that Black people were absolutely not supposed to express rage or indignation in public. I mean, in many parts of the country at the time — and this was true well into the 20th century — Black people were not even supposed to look white people in the eye. So here you have this powerful Black man looking everyone in the eye with this intense expression of anger and rage and defiance and power, as well as self-possession. So that in itself was a message and a challenge to America.
What you wrote about the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act helped me understand the long history of vigilantism in the U.S. in a different way. I had not made the connection between the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and how the U.S. government and some state governments have recently promised to reward civilians for reporting their health care colleagues on First Amendment, religious exercise rights, to the U.S. government and how Texas, for example, tried to empower Texans to report women to the U.S. government for seeking an abortion. How does writing about Frederick Douglass help you understand the suffering of surveillance and incrimination?
This is getting into somewhat tricky territory. But first I should say that the scholar Gloria J. Browne-Marshall’s description of the Fugitive Slave Act in the film was not scripted by me — those were her own very eloquent words. I did write about the Fugitive Slave Act in the script of course, and pretty much hit on the same points, but Gloria extended it and made it incredibly clear and understandable, I thought. At any rate, I’m glad that that aspect of the film expanded your insight into something happening today, but I think that connecting an Act of Congress in 1850 that exclusively impacted enslaved and free Black people in this country with some of the current issues around freedom of speech, religious rights, and abortion is tricky.
This is kind of an age-old argument — whether a degree of parity exists between the suffering of one group and the suffering of another. In both Holocaust studies and Black studies areas, for example, this subject has been discussed widely — “Wasn’t slavery like the Holocaust, and wasn’t the Holocaust like slavery?” Well, where people have for the most part landed is that it is an affront to each group to suggest that there is parity — that the circumstances around the suffering of one group must remain specific to that group and their descendants. Does that make sense?
For example if someone said to the descendant of a Black person who was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, “My brother is a doctor in Texas and he was arrested for giving an abortion, isn’t that the same as your great-great-great grandfather being arrested and sent back to Georgia?” The answer would have to be “no”, out of respect for all Black Americans and what they went through.
What can Buddhist practitioners learn about liberation from Frederick Douglass’s life?
Well, I think one of the things we can all learn from Frederick Douglass’ life is that each of us has the power to create our own lives at every moment, out of the ground of what Buddhists I suppose might call emptiness. Which is what Douglass did. That the world is not as limited as we might think — in fact if you look at Douglass’s example there are no limits. Particularly as a child, he was bereft of many of the things we take for granted — some basic degree of security, love, sense of your place in the world, recognition that you are “someone.” That was taken away from him at age six, and he had none of the usual mirrors to reflect back to you that you are someone of value, or even that you are “somebody” at all. In fact, the world was telling him he was “nobody”, and that he had no value whatsoever. But Douglass called on these remarkable inner resources even at a very early age, and did it himself — he created himself and his path — in his case the path to freedom.
At age six, Douglass saw quite clearly that his own situation and that of all the enslaved people around him was terribly wrong, and he vowed even that he would do something. And almost miraculously, he ended up fulfilling that early promise he had made — to free himself and his people. So I think that his example is fairly consistent with what Buddhist teachers might tell us again and again, that “it’s up to us.” And if liberation is to be achieved we have to do it ourselves through our own efforts. Of course we have teachers and teachings to show us the way, but ultimately it’s up to us. Frederick Douglass did have mentors and examples (and was also incredibly well-read, even though he never stepped foot in a schoolroom) but he was really someone who created himself out of thin air, and on top of that in the face of tremendous obstacles. Starting with “nothing” — externally at least — and becoming one of the greatest figures in American history, and, as far as I could tell, a fully-evolved human being.