One Day When I was Lost: A Scenario

by James Baldwin

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Malcolm X’s Search for a Father Figure

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1915

Despite the fact that James Baldwin stated that he felt it was his duty to write the screenplay One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario as a writer and not an interpreter of Malcolm X’s life, when the screenplay is compared to Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X (from which it was adapted), it is easy to point out incidents of Baldwin’s use of poetic license. For this reason, this essay will examine Baldwin’s screenplay not as a biography of Malcolm X but as a work of dramatic fiction, a work of Baldwin’s creative intelligence.

Shortly after the opening moments of his screenplay, Baldwin develops a flashback to a scene of Malcolm X’s father. This same scene, or a slight variation, is woven throughout the play, emphasizing the influence of Earl Little, Malcolm’s father, on his son. The use of flashback is a creative device that cinematically demonstrates that Earl is forever present in Malcolm’s life in spite of the fact that he died when Malcolm was quite young. The flashback also acts as a window into Malcolm’s mind, making it appear as if the audience could see into Malcolm’s thoughts.

By continually referring back to Earl, Baldwin also creates an obvious theme—an almost mythological search for a father figure. Since the screenplay is written more like a work of fiction than as a documentary, it is not known whether this quest for the father is a reflection of Baldwin’s own deep psychological need or is a passion that Baldwin perceived in the real life of Malcolm. It is not crucial to know the reason why Baldwin established this theme but rather to use the theme in order to grasp a more complex meaning of the play.

In Baldwin’s script, two developments occur. First, he has events in Malcolm’s life that appear to mimic, or mirror, his father’s life; and second, he has Malcolm experience significant encounters with adult men who want to take Malcolm under their wing as a father figure might do. In reference to the first development, Baldwin’s supposition is that a boy who never knew his father might foster a sense of void as he is growing up. Subconsciously, that young child, in an attempt to define who his father was, might take upon himself to live out parts of the father’s life as he remembers it, or as his mother might have related it to him in the form of stories. To this end, Baldwin inserts numerous flashbacks of Earl being harassed by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan is angry with him because he preaches the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, the leader of the socalled Back to Africa Movement. This aspect of Earl’s life mirrors Malcolm’s life as a preacher of the Nation of Islam, which also causes Malcolm to be harassed because he also believes in creating a separate nation for African Americans. Whereas Earl is harassed by the KKK, Malcolm is harassed by the white press and eventually by the leaders of the Black Muslims.

Another incident that the father and son share is the fire that destroys their homes, and the firefighters who, in the father’s case, stand by and watch the house burn down; and in the son’s situation, never show up. The third, more dramatic similarity is the fact that both men are murdered for their beliefs.

The parallels between the two men’s lives are interesting, but it is the creation of the father figures in Baldwin’s script that is more fascinating, because by following the development of Malcolm’s supposed search for a father, as Baldwin dramatizes it,...

(This entire section contains 1915 words.)

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the reader can surmise that Malcolm might have fully realized the answers he was seeking.

The first substitute father that Malcolm finds, or more literally, who finds Malcolm, is Archie. Baldwin even spells out the relationship by having Archie refer to Malcolm, upon first seeing him, as being about the same age that Archie’s son would be. Archie feels sorry for Malcolm, who is obviously dressed as a man newly arrived to the city from the country would be. Archie immediately (and somewhat unnaturally, given the short span of time between their initial meeting and Archie’s summation) senses Malcolm’s potential and takes him into his care. He teaches Malcolm how to make a living in the city without having to humble himself to white people. Under Archie’s directions, Malcolm becomes more street-wise and more independent. He becomes so good, as a matter of fact, that he eventually challenges Archie, something that a son might do in order to progress from the role of a child to that of an adult.

The challenge, although somewhat convoluted, reflects the psychological relationship between a father and a son. Malcolm beats Archie at his own game, that of numbers running. Archie, as the father figure, can’t believe that his so-called son could have done that without cheating. This incident marks a turning point in their relationship; and the son must leave home. Much later, Malcolm returns home to see Archie, who shows not only signs of physical old age but also of mental deterioration. This vindicates Malcolm, demonstrating that he did not cheat Archie, that he was a good son. Instead, it was Archie’s loss of memory that led to Archie’s downfall. Malcolm visits Archie as a son might visit a father in a nursing home, caring enough to take the time to see the old man, but not so devoted as to offer much assistance.

At the turning point of Archie and Malcolm’s relationship, although he has outgrown Archie and must leave home, Malcolm is not yet fully mature. Almost as soon as he leaves Archie’s side, Malcolm gets into trouble with the law and is sent to prison. He still has lessons to learn. In prison, however, another older man is attracted to Malcolm. This time it is Luther who takes Malcolm to heart. Luther, like Archie, immediately sees Malcolm’s potential. He senses that underneath Malcolm’s immature anger is a man crying out for direction. Luther’s direction is to get Malcolm to embrace his identity as a black man, to encourage him to read, and to guide him toward spirituality. Luther also teaches Malcolm to focus and intensify his dislike of white people. It is through the discipline that Luther teaches Malcolm that Malcolm finds his way out of prison. It is also through Luther’s direction that Malcolm leaves prison as a better-educated man. When Malcolm is released, he goes directly to Luther’s home.

Malcolm learns about Islam under Luther’s tutelage, much as he learned about petty crime under Archie’s instructions. Once again, he advances so quickly and so successfully that he challenges his new father figure, Luther. Like Archie before him, Luther is uneasy with Malcolm’s achievements and contrives a showdown with him. Like Archie’s confrontation, Luther’s challenge threatens Malcolm’s life.

Malcolm must again conclude that it is time to leave the home of the father. He cannot live under Luther’s house rules. So he strikes out on his own. First, he establishes his own mosque, separate from his so-called father’s. This is much like a son going out into the world and finding his own job, his own identity. Instead of having to bow to the dictates of his father, he can now create his own rules. Malcolm uncovers the weaknesses and hypocrisies of Luther, much as a son, when he grows up, sometimes sees the frailties of his father. However, despite the fact that Malcolm leaves Luther, he continues to be influenced by him. He continues to preach the same philosophy that he has learned under Luther’s guidance. Although Malcolm is growing up, he is not yet fully mature.

Malcolm experiences a new conversion. During his pilgrimage to Mecca, he witnesses the world, especially the Middle Eastern world of Islam. He sees people through much different lenses than the ones that Luther had given him. When Malcolm travels to Africa and the Middle East, he hears Muslims preach a love of mankind regardless of race. At this point, he senses that the hate that the Black Muslims inspire is no more progressive than the hate that white Americans practice through their racial bigotry. With this new realization, Malcolm reflects on the influence of all the fathers who have raised him. He questions Earl’s allegiance to Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of Nationalism. He rids himself of Archie’s con games and petty criminal attitude. More significantly, he examines the underlying premise of the Nation of Islam, the viewpoint that Luther had taught him.

By the time Malcolm returns to the United States, he has begun to create a belief system of his own. He has also all but freed himself from all his fathers’ influences and is starting to realize a new identity, one that he has put together on his own. Now he can go forward unheeded. As Baldwin has him say, in an attempt to explain to his wife the dramatic changes in his outlook, ‘‘I’m trying to turn a corner.’’

Having attained new insights into himself and the beliefs that drive him, Malcolm faces Luther one more time, much as he had faced Archie upon being released from jail. During their confrontation, Luther, in essence, tells Malcolm that he is a dreamer. Luther says that Malcolm has lost his way because he wants to change the world, wants to change people. Luther, on the other hand, believes that people are more like him: they don’t want to be changed. Malcolm listens to Luther but remains strong in his newfound beliefs. He knows that Luther is wrong. If Malcolm can change, he knows that anyone can change. ‘‘I don’t believe you,’’ he says to Luther. ‘‘I know better. Like I know I’m better than you—I know people are better than that.’’ This cuts the remaining strings between Malcolm and Luther and marks the full maturation of the son.

In the last segments of the play, Baldwin shows a new development in Malcolm’s psychology. Baldwin has Malcolm appear with his children. First, there is the scene in which Malcolm’s house is fire bombed. After running out of the house, Malcolm has his wife count the children. This scene is a reflection of a previous one, which showed the fire that Malcolm experienced as a child. In the prior incident, Malcolm’s father also asked Malcolm’s mother to count the children, as they watched their house burn down. Then, in the final scenes of the script, Baldwin has Malcolm call his wife and ask her to come with their children to hear him make his speech at the Audubon Ballroom, the day of his assassination. With these two scenes, Malcolm has become the father. Baldwin brings his script to a close by ending Malcolm’s search. Malcolm is no longer a boy. He has fully taken on the paternal role. The father of Malcolm’s quest now resides within him.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Hart has written literary essays, books on the study of language, and a soon-to-be-published biography of Richard Wright.

Public and Private uses of Names

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2296

Satan. Homeboy. Red. El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. Malcolm Little. Malcolm X.

Over the course of his short, dramatic life, the man most commonly known as Malcolm X was known by many names and went through as many changes. He was a class president and a drug dealer, a thief and a prisoner, a minister, an agitator, a peacemaker—and with each new identity, he seemed to take a new name. In One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario, James Baldwin’s screen adaptation of Alex Haley’s landmark Autobiography of Malcolm X, Baldwin plays with these names and the larger question of naming, to understand and chart the course of Malcolm X’s transformations, both in the public eye, and in his very personal life.

In the opening pages of One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario, Malcolm begins the reverie that frames the retelling of his life with the line ‘‘So many names.’’ In the scene that immediately follows, the reader is confronted with one of the central naming issues of the screenplay: the fact that, for much of the action, the character Baldwin refers to as Malcolm is called something else by the other members of the cast. In this case, that name is ‘‘Red’’—a nickname given to Malcolm by his young black friends, called out to him over the dance floor of a black dance hall in which Malcolm escapes the all-white school he attends by day. In the next scene, Malcolm names himself for his white girlfriend, asking, ‘‘What you going to tell your white boy about your black boy? Your fine black stud? Your nigger?’’ But in her world, she tells him, he’ll remain nameless, saying ‘‘I am not going to speak about you at all.’’ Baldwin introduces one final name for Malcolm before he ends the montage: Satan, given to Malcolm by his guards and fellow inmates in prison, in reference to his violent tendencies. In closing, Malcolm’s voice-over repeats again, ‘‘So many names.’’

In this montage, and throughout the play, others will assign Malcolm different names, and he himself will announce various changes. But Malcolm’s names are not the only ones Baldwin engages. Baldwin is concerned with questions of naming, and identity, on a larger scale. He uses Malcolm’s search for a true name to describe and understand two races, and a nation, in search of identity.

Baldwin’s concern with issues of identity is first hinted at in the very next scene, a memory from Malcolm’s childhood. Louise, Malcolm’s mother, stands on the front porch, barring her door to a pack of KKK riders. Baldwin describes her as ‘‘nearly as white as they are,’’ adding that this ‘‘lends her a very particular bitterness and a contemptuous authority.’’ Louise, whom the riders refer to as a ‘‘half-white [b——],’’ throws into relief the issue of what makes a person ‘‘black’’ or ‘‘white.’’ In appearance, she is very much like the men she is defending her children against, a fact that she doesn’t let them forget, telling them that ‘‘I might be your daughter, for all you know . . . or your sister . . .’’

In reality, she is ‘‘blacker’’ than the members of her race who might prize her light skin, saying later that she hates even the part of herself that is white, ‘‘every drop of that white rapist’s blood that’s in my veins!’’ She also drops one of Baldwin’s first statements on the theme of true identity, when she calls one of the riders by name, saying ‘‘You can veil your face, but you can’t hide your voice, Mr. Joel. I know every one of you.’’ Change as much of the exteriors as you like, Louise claims. What is fundamental about a person, good or bad, remains the same—and is tied up in a person’s true name.

Baldwin quickly expands on Louise’s statement that, regardless of name, the fundamentals of identity don’t change. In the following scenes, Baldwin explores the way naming both reveals and obscures the reality, not just of an individual’s identity, but of the true nature of the entire world. When Malcolm’s father, Earl, meets his death on the railroad tracks, after being badly beaten by the same whites who harassed his wife earlier, the white-owned insurance company names the death a ‘‘suicide.’’ Again, Louise renames reality for what it is, asking, ‘‘How a man going to beat in the back of his own skull?’’

His father’s death and mother’s institutionalization leave Malcolm in the hands of the state, where he is, for the first time, directly confronted with the dissonance between the harsh realities of his life and the way in which the authorities play with names to obscure the truth. ‘‘You lucky,’’ a white official tells Malcolm on the drive to the home that will replace his own. ‘‘This ain’t the reform school. This is just a nice private home.’’ In the same conversation, another official attempts to rename Malcolm’s mother’s sickness, telling Malcolm that Louise is ‘‘just tired,’’ and that ‘‘she’ll be all right.’’ Interestingly, Malcolm’s stony silence elicits the only grain of truth from either official. Uncomfortable with the long pause, the second official finally admits, ‘‘Okay. It’s rough.’’

On arriving at the home of his well-meaning foster mother, Malcolm is confronted with another case in which the named truth conflicts sharply with reality. ‘‘This is Malcolm,’’ Mrs. Swerlin says, introducing him. ‘‘He’s just like all the rest of us.’’ For Malcolm, whose father died because of the difference in skin color between Malcolm and his foster ‘‘brothers,’’ that lie would be impossible to forget. And it would be impossible for the white world to truly forget it, either. Despite the fact that Malcolm excels at his school, even becoming class president, when he confides in a favorite teacher that he’d like to be a lawyer, the teacher informs him that he’ll never achieve that ambition, and that he should look for work he can do with his hands.

Disillusioned, Malcolm turns to the company of his black friend, Shorty, who teaches Malcolm to use the names the white world has given to them against it. For the time being, Malcolm accepts Shorty’s assertion that his teeth, revealed in an insincere, subservient grin, are worth ‘‘more than a college education,’’ and sets about acting the profitable caricature of a ‘‘happy darky.’’ Shorty, who has always been insistent on Malcolm’s identity as a black man, calls Malcolm ‘‘homeboy,’’ and Malcolm gives himself another, new name, the first in a what will become a long string: ‘‘Detroit Red.’’ But he almost always stays a step removed from the name he’s given himself, telling customers and friends that ‘‘People call me Red,’’ rather than ‘‘I’m Red,’’ or ‘‘My name’s Red.’’

This change of name allows Malcolm to play with other details of his identity, like his age. ‘‘Honey,’’ a woman at the dance hall tells Malcolm, ‘‘I know you ain’t twenty-two, like you claim. But you sure is big for your age.’’ Malcolm’s namings of himself, interestingly, are not the complete fabrications of the white world, but somehow reflect a larger truth. He may not be twenty-two, but the ‘lie’ does, in some ways, more accurately reflect his true identity than his actual age. Even as a teenager, Malcolm is both more physically mature, and has more life experience than other boys his age.

But when Malcolm starts dating Laura, his first love, he begins again to try to name things for what they are, telling her ‘‘I’m not nice at all. . . . Maybe everything I ever told you was a lie.’’ But, like his mother, Laura insists that she can see through names to true identity, responding that she knows him, and that he’s ‘‘smart, and distinguished,’’ and ‘‘nice.’’ Laura retains this ability to see through to Malcolm’s true identity for much of the play. Years later, when his identity as Detroit Red is fully solidified, and far darker than when they first met, Malcolm and Laura meet again, and she immediately identifies him by a name no one else has spoken for years: ‘‘Malcolm. Malcolm Little.’’

But although Laura still recognizes him as the star-student she knew as a young girl, ‘‘Red’s’’ lifestyle leads into an almost inevitable downward spiral, and Malcolm lands in prison. There, he’s given another name, ‘‘Satan,’’ in reference to his violent tendencies. Despite the demonic nickname, it is in prison that Malcolm finds salvation, which, interestingly, comes partly through a name. Luther, a fellow inmate and disciple of the Nation of Islam, approaches Malcolm and calls him ‘‘Red.’’ ‘‘How’d you know my name?’’ Malcolm asks, and then adds, ‘‘You the first person ever to call me by my name . . . in this joint.’’ Touched, Malcolm becomes friends with Luther, who eventually learns his ‘‘true name,’’ Malcolm, and begins to call him by it.

Malcolm quickly becomes a disciple of Islam. Studying scripture, he runs across the story of history’s most famous name change—Saul, who became Paul after his dramatic conversion to Christianity. As Malcolm undergoes a similarly profound transformation, both prisoners and authorities are baffled. But none of them know his name. ‘‘What’s wrong with Satan?’’ the prisoners ask. ‘‘What’s the matter with you, boy?’’ the prison doctor inquires. But since they never knew any of his real names, they can’t understand the current transformation.

In fact, for the first time, things seem to be going right for Malcolm, a fact that Baldwin again marks by the use of his name. When Malcolm makes it out of prison and joins the Nation of Islam, for the first time in his life someone asks him for permission to use his name. Malcolm grants the permission to Luther’s son Sidney graciously, but negotiating the tangled web of names in his past is not so easy. Shorty still calls Malcolm ‘‘Homeboy,’’ and writes his conversion off as a new hustle. Archie, a buddy from his life of crime, will never know Malcolm as anyone other than ‘‘Red.’’ And Malcolm himself seems to know that even his given name doesn’t quite fit the new man he’s become. As he grows in power as a leader in the nation of Islam, he drops his last name, replacing it with an ‘‘X’’—a protest against the ‘‘white rapist’’ who gave his family it’s name, but also a gesture that suggests that someday a truer name may replace the spot X marks.

As a leader in the nation of Islam, Malcolm begins to more boldly play with names and naming to create and reveal identity. During a peaceful standoff outside a police station where another leader is being held, a captain tries to push Malcolm back into the facelessness the white world has forced on the black race, calling Malcolm ‘‘Mac,’’ as if his name and identity are not really worth knowing. But with the Nation of Islam at his back, Malcolm is free to correct him. Interestingly, he does not entrust the policeman with his true name, but tells him only that he’s wrong in his assumptions: ‘‘My name ain’t Mac.’’ Malcolm then retaliates with a name of his own, calling the policeman a ‘‘dog,’’ and then revising that statement, saying that the captain doesn’t even share the identity of a dog, that ‘‘a dog wouldn’t do this.’’

But even strict adherence to the Nation of Islam doesn’t seem to be a perfect path for Malcolm, who, through all the public work and organizational intrigues, is still searching for his own, personal truth, a sense of his true identity—his real name. As the organization he’s served begins to implode around him, Malcolm makes the traditional Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, discovering a world he’d never dreamed of, where white, black, yellow, and brown worship together in seeming peace. And there he is also given a new name: ‘‘El Hajj Malik El Shabazz,’’ or ‘‘the son who has come home.’’

When Malcolm does return home, though, the world that has always misnamed him, and missed his true identity, is still a step behind. He’s won a victory of sorts in that America has accepted Malcolm X, the most recent name he’d chosen. Reporters, guards, and colleagues still refer to him as ‘‘Malcolm,’’ ‘‘Mr. X,’’ and ‘‘Malcolm X.’’ But El Hajj Malik El Shabazz is already a step beyond them, struggling, as he says, with the fact that every time he tries to turn a corner ‘‘the old Malcolm X stands there, barring the way.’’ Only his wife, who adopts the name ‘‘Betty Shabazz,’’ seems to grasp the significance of Malcolm’s Mecca-driven shift in vision.

In the end, his enemies’ perception of ‘‘the old Malcolm X’’ leads to Malcolm’s famous assassination. But it may be in death that he finds his true identity. Malcolm, Homeboy, Red, Satan— throughout his life, the character Baldwin calls ‘‘Malcolm’’ has answered to, and chosen, many names. But he is imbued from childhood with his mother’s insistence that what is fundamental about a person never changes, Malcolm continually reached for his true identity, and for the accompanying name. The inscription on his grave reads, ‘‘El Hajj Malik El Shabazz.’’ And in that, Baldwin seems to suggest, the great man found his true nature, and his true name.

Source: Carey Wallace, Critical Essay on One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Wallace’s stories, poems, and essays appear in publications around the country.

Racism and the Spiritual Journey made by Malcolm X

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1747

The purpose of the novelist, James Baldwin explained in a 1962 New York Times Book Review essay, ‘‘involves attempting to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.’’ His ‘‘scenario’’ based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography Of Malcolm X achieves that goal, revealing one extraordinary man’s remarkable journey through the dark heart of American racism. Although based on a true story, it contains all the hallmarks of epic fiction, with the hero overcoming tremendous hardship to reach the promised land of enlightenment.

It is not surprising that Baldwin found inspiration in the story of Malcolm, whose struggle against bigotry propelled him along a journey of selfdiscovery similar to that found in much of the author’s other work. As Louis H. Pratt notes in his book, James Baldwin: ‘‘Malcolm X, like the characters that abound in Baldwin’s fiction, is a man in search of himself.’’ Baldwin uses the title of the screenplay itself to suggest that this journey of Malcolm’s is being viewed from the perspective of someone who has finally found his way: ‘‘One day when I was lost.’’ That concept of looking backward is reinforced in the scenario’s first few lines, which offer a glimpse of events through a car’s sideview mirror ‘‘that fills the screen.’’ Malcolm has already arrived. But before it is even completely clear exactly where he is, flashes of the racial hatred that set him to wandering in a sort of wilderness begin to appear.

While still in the womb, Malcolm Little was subjected to the kind of terror frequently experienced by African Americans during much of the twentieth century. In a chilling scene, Baldwin depicts white-hooded horsemen smashing windows, a pregnant young Louise Little flinching as they stampede past. This is the America of Malcolm Little’s boyhood. And by the time he is a teenager, his father—an outspoken proponent of black nationalism— is dead, his skull crushed by a bigot’s hammer and his still breathing body tossed on the tracks of an on-coming trolley. It is an image that haunts Malcolm throughout his life.

This is the kind of hard truth Baldwin said the writer must tell, no matter how painful. It’s the kind of truth that shaped the direction of Malcolm’s life. Also tragic is that fate of Malcolm’s mother, who, unable to carry on without the courageous husband she loved and respected, is locked away in an insane asylum. That, too, leaves Malcolm with an image that will continue to haunt him. After running afoul of the law, he catches what appears to be a break and is placed in the care of a kindly white woman, who says she loves Malcolm like a son. But, during what should be one of his happiest moments—the day a judge comes to say it’s been determined Malcolm has ‘‘reformed’’ himself and become an upright young man, he overhears a conversation that leaves another deep emotional scar. This woman, too, reveals herself to be yet another racist.

Despite these setbacks, Malcolm’s natural intelligence and outgoing personality allow him to prevail. He earns top grades in school, and is elected class president. Like his fellow students, he has vision of a bright future, but when he approaches a trusted guidance counselor, the man quashes Malcolm’s dreams of pursuing a career in law, saying that’s not an option for a black boy. His dreams crushed, Malcolm Little disappears.

The person who emerges in his place is a street hustler who goes by the nickname ‘‘Red.’’ It is, as the character Malcolm notes, one of many names he would adopt throughout his life, each one serving as a milepost marking a different point in his life’s journey. Red is an abandonment of all of young Malcolm’s highest ideals and aspirations. This person is a womanizer, hard-drinker, thief and drug user who’s clever enough to avoid the draft and stay one step ahead of the law—for a while. Despite a growing hatred of whites, he has no real pride in being black. This is evidenced by his willingness to undergo the near-torturous process of using lye treatments to have his hair ‘‘conked,’’ or straightened.

By the end of the scenario’s first act, a debauched Red has run out of fast talk and clever ploys, and has nothing more to look forward to than spending the foreseeable future behind bars on robbery charges. It is in prison, where his violent ways earn him the new nickname of ‘‘Satan,’’ that Malcolm experiences what Pratt describes as the first of two ‘‘epiphanies.’’ He meets a fellow inmate named Luther, who takes a liking to young Malcolm and begins trying to convert him to a black nationalist form of Islam that demonizes whites. Pointing to Malcolm’s conked hair, Luther asserts, ‘‘You go to all that trouble and all that pain and sweat and put all that poison in your hair, what for? Because you ashamed of being black and you want to be white.’’ Luther keeps working on Malcolm, convincing him to give up cigarettes, alcohol, and pork, all the while preaching his brand of Islam: ‘‘You don’t even know who you are. You don’t even know, the white devil has hidden it from you.’’ By the time Luther is released, Malcolm is a convert. He’s no longer Satan; he’s become Malcolm X, the slave-name Little discarded in favor of a mark that represents his stolen heritage.

When he’s finally set free, Malcolm finds a home with Luther and his fellow followers in the Nation of Islam. Once again, his intelligence propels him, and he advances quickly, taking charge of the sect’s newspaper to spread its views to masses of African Americans. That sense of purpose and fulfillment carry over into the start of the third act, which finds Malcolm as happy as he’s ever been. He’s leading a morally upright life, providing meaning to his life by committing himself to a cause he totally believes in. He’s also fallen in love and married an attractive, intelligent woman named Betty, a fellow church member. They have children, and his success grows.

Malcolm’s combination of natural charisma and intense belief pay off in a way he never imagined, with thousands of people turning out to hear him speak. The church’s militancy inspires followers fed-up with the second-class treatment suffered by African Americans, and Malcolm’s angry speeches and fiery, no-compromise writings promise change by any means necessary.

But there’s a downside to this success: before long, his mentor Luther and the church’s leader grow jealous. Betty sees trouble brewing, but Malcolm refuses to heed her warnings. Then he is told of a murder plot. As hard as it is for him to believe, the people at the top levels of the church he wholeheartedly committed himself to want him dead. That threat, coupled with a desire to visit the birthplace of Islam, compel Malcolm to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. It is there, seeing masses of Muslims representing all races, that he experiences what Pratt describes as a second epiphany. In a letter to Betty he writes, ‘‘I have never before seen true and sincere brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.’’ ‘‘True Islam,’’ he adds, ‘‘has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks. Yes, I have been convinced that some American whites do want to help cure the rampant racism which is on the path to destroying this country.’’

Writes Pratt: ‘‘Here in the Muslim world, Malcolm witnesses the true fellowship and goodwill of men of all races and color, and his enlightenment is developed and reined into a state of perception.’’ Alex Haley, in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, also notes the profound effect of the experience, noting that Malcolm came to realize that ‘‘both races . . . had the obligation, the responsibility, of helping to correct America’s human problem.’’

Like a loop, Baldwin’s screenplay takes readers full circle. As it comes to the end, it returns to where the story began, with Malcolm looking into the rear-view mirror of his car as it pulls up to the Harlem ballroom where he is scheduled to speak. He has arrived home once again, but now he’s preaching a message altered by the experiences of his pilgrimage. And, like any number of other prophets, his return to spread a new word in a land not yet fully ready to hear it leads to both tragedy and, ultimately, triumph. He no longer believed in the essential message of the church that he’d devoted himself to, and it’s leaders feared his popularity would drain away followers and resources. Just as he looked across America and saw few white people willing to look with honesty at the terrible hardships their racism has caused, he also realized that his former allies weren’t prepared to accept the broader vision he now wanted to share. As he told a friend, ‘‘Maybe, you know, there are never very many people, no matter what their color, who are dedicated to change.’’

This marked the completion of a long spiritual journey. Through hardship and loss, degradation and suffering, he’d made the passage from darkness into the light of understanding. And with that knowledge, he was ready to go out anew and create a better America. His wife and children sat in the audience, joining the packed house in that Harlem ballroom. But instead of hearing Malcolm X speak, they saw black men rise up, draw their guns, and shoot him dead. And that is the tragedy of his life. Like his father before him, he was taken far too soon. The triumph is found in the words of his wife, Betty. Baldwin closes out his screenplay by having her say to everyone all the same thing she always told Malcolm as he prepared to leave on a trip: ‘‘You are present when you are away.’’

His message, like his spirit, has become eternal.

Source: Curt Guyette, Critical Essay on One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Guyette is a graduate from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in English and is a longtime journalist.


Critical Overview