Dunbar on Black Books
June 1998    


Spotlight on Iyanla Vanzant
Iyanla Vanzant is a prolific writer whose work has created a substantial blip on the radar screen of the publishing industry. She is the author of several books which target African-American men and women, books which as "Publishers Weekly" points out, have proved that they can reach a wider audience. One of them, [0605] In the Meantime: Finding Yourself and the Love You Want is on the national charts. A second, [0611] One Day My Soul Just Opened Up, is reportedly right below the top 15. There are 250, 000 copies of the first book in print. There are about 235,000 copies of the second. Vanzant's most successful book, [0274] Acts of Faith, published in 1993 has more than 700,000 copies in print. Two of her other books, [0681] The Value in the Valley: A Black Woman's Guide through Life's Dilemmas, and [0682] Faith in the Valley: Lessons for Women on the Journey to Peace, have a combined total of about a million copies in print in paperback and in hardcover. Who is Iyanla Vanzant? How has she managed this remarkable achievement?

My initial sense of who Iyanla Vanzant is, gained from scanning lists of books and authors to make selections for inclusion in the "Dunbar on Black Books" bibliography, was not unlike that of the disk jockey who said that when he first heard the name Brooke Benton, he thought of an account executive. The way the disk jockey said this clearly implied that before he learned better he thought that Brooke Benton was a white man. So it is that when I first saw the name Iyanla Vanzant, author of [0274] Acts of Faith, I made the snap judgment that this was a [white] woman of middle European descent. Until I learned more than a year later that Iyanla in Yoruba means "great mother" I had no idea of Ms. Vanzant's ethnicity. (This made no difference as regards the inclusion of the book in the bibliography since any book which is about or targets black persons can be included, irrespective of the ethnicity of the author.)

From an interview she gave to Essence magazine in 1996 we begin to get an insight into who this Brooklyn-born Yoruba princess is. First we learn that she is a spiritual counselor, author and lecturer who has come to her calling by an unusual route. She had a classically troubled childhood marked by all of the trauma-producing experiences imaginable. The death of her mother when she was two years of age, her rape by a family member when she was nine, eleven years on welfare, a broken jaw at the hands of an abusive husband, and two nervous breakdowns suggest that over the forty-two years that she had lived by 1996 when interviewed by Diane Weathers of Essence, Iyanla Vanzant had acquired considerable firsthand experience with dysfunctional living. What is clear is that Iyanla Vanzant took the lemons given to her by life and made lemonade. She has become a spiritual counselor par excellence. How she did it is inspiring.

Vanzant enrolled at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York in 1978 and thus took the first step in getting off welfare. She graduated summa cum laude in 1983. After that she attended the CUNY law school at Queens College, where she earned the Doctorate of Jurisprudence in 1988 and passed the bar the same year. Reportedly she is nearing the completion of a Ph.D. in religious studies at Temple University. She moved to Philadelphia and joined a firm there as a criminal-defense lawyer. After three years she gave that up. She provides the following rationale for leaving the firm in 1990:

"I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing. I knew if I remained I would become part of the system, and I knew that system was wrong."

It was at this moment that Vanzant had one of the visions that seem to characterize her life. She tells of walking into her office in the law firm and experiencing it as being without any light at all. She says that she told this to her secretary, who was incredulous, and insisted that the lights were working and suggested to Vanzant that she needed to have her vision checked. Vanzant says of that experience:

"From down deep in my soul the message came to me: You're standing in darkness. So I just walked out. I never told them I quit, I just left."

It is at this point that Ms. Vanzant appears to have responded to a long-felt call to give herself over to Yoruban culture as an alternative for dealing with life. As the biblical Saul of Tarsus had experienced a blinding light on the road to Damascus preceding his conversion, Iyanla Vanzant experienced total darkness in the office of the Philadelphia law firm before seeing the light of Yoruban culture as an alternative life style and committing herself fully to counselling others in her new faith.

Vanzant's modus operandi, as gleaned from the Diane Weathers interview, in Essence suggests a priestess with five disciples. Vanzant tells the interviewer that these five, whom she calls her "buds," work, play and pray full time out of her home in Maryland. The home is the nerve center of the Vanzant company, "Inner Visions Spiritual Life Maintenance." In the basement office, the business side of the ministry is carried on. It is there that the telephone work, the scheduling of the lectures, and direct sales of her books and tapes are handled. There too, the efforts and energies of the ancillary functionaries who are part of Vanzant's entourage are engaged: hands-on healers, energy masters and prayer warriors.

The place is also organized to advance the spiritual side of the participants. According to Diane Weathers, you don't realize that this is the abode of a Yoruba priestess until you go upstairs. There you notice yellow notes on door and mirror frames in her bedroom, office and bathrooms. These are reminders to stay the course: "I will judge nothing that occurs; The struggle is over; I am a divine daughter; What you see you become."

There are three altars on the premises. At a bedroom altar Vanzant does a daily meditation at 5:30 a.m. On it is an amethyst crystal and ashes from the altar of the Dalai Lama. Also found here are images of Ms. Vanzant's spiritual muses: Baba Muktananda, Babaji, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Vishnu, and Buddha.

On an altar in her book-lined office sit seven glasses of water and an image of the Black Madonna. It is at this altar that Ms. Vanzant consecrates her eyes, head, mouth and ears before sitting down at her computer to write.

Once a week, Vanzant visits a third ancestral altar downstairs in a room in the basement. This one has displayed on it old family photos and pictures of 21 legendary African-American women, including Harriet Tubman, Audre Lorde, Queen Mother Moore and Ida B. Wells. Vanzant explains to a visitor, "I'm standing on my ancestors. They are powerful people who have done so much of the work."

The study of other articles and essays about Iyanla Vanzant and her ministry contributed to my own sense of who she is. A 1995 essay by Barbara Campbell describing the effect that Vanzant had on a large crowd at London's Electric Cinema is illustrative of the way that Vanzant has built her following and her readership. The thought occurred to me that at about the time that I was classifying her as a middle European white women, she was a black Yoruba priestess presenting before audiences in England which, as Campbell says, "have a propensity to lap up anything to do with the spiritual and the mystical, all in search of that intangible something they believe exists on another plain."

A clear image of Ilyana Vanzant emerges in my mind in the spring of 1998. She is a bright, highly spiritual, well educated self-ordained African-American Yoruba priestess. She preaches a powerful message of self empowerment that meets a need here and abroad. She is constantly on the road evangelizing and concurrently promoting her writings. Unlike most other "evangelists," she appeals as much to the intellect of her hearers as she does to their emotions. The proof is found in the fact that they buy her books and, evidently, read them.


    0032 The Spirit of a Man: A Vision of Transformation for Black Men and the Women Who Love Them. by Iyanla Vanzant. Harper. San Francisco. ISBN 0-06-251236-6.
    "Vanzant presents another spiritual interpretation of the African American experience. This time, the focus is on "black men and the women who love them." She provides valuable insight into a self-help approach that men can implement to analyze, explain, and improve their conditions and relationships. She notes in her introduction that she received a vision that inspired and led her to write and speak to and for black men." [Source: American Library Association, as quoted by Amazon.com]

    0274 Acts of Faith: Meditations for People of Color. by Iyanla Vanzant. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0684832354.
    In confronting discrimination, racism, rejection, and alienation, many people of color are turning toward a more spiritual approach to solving the problems that are unique to them. Here is a book of positive meditations that is sure to raise the consciousness of any reader. [Source: Amazon.com]

    0605 In the Meantime: Finding Yourself and the Love You Want. by Iyanla Vanzant. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0684841363.
    "In her most recent book, . . . Vanzant offers specific advice for breaking the cycle of disappointing and destructive relationships. The experience of struggle is called the meantime, says Vanzant. Whether we're seeking a more loving relationship with a family member or seeking a soul mate, it is the work we are called to do on ourselves that makes the meantime so challenging." [Source: Amazon.com]

    0611 One Day My Soul Just Opened Up: 40 Days and 40 Nights toward Spiritual Strength. by Iyanla Vanzant. S&S Fireside. ISBN 0684841347.
    "Both an inspiring guide and a hands-on measurement tool that enables readers to chart their spiritual growth as it unfolds... Vanzant introduces 40 principles to follow and embrace in daily living as guideposts on the path toward spiritual strength and understanding. [Source: Amazon.com]

    0681 The Value in the Valley: A Black Woman's Guide through Life's Dilemmas. by Ilyana Vanzant. Fireside. ISBN 0684824752. 0684802872.
    The bestselling author of Acts of Faith - and the leading voice on spirituality and empowerment for African-American women - lays out a soaring inspirational message, with step-by-step advice on coping with the challenges of daily life. [Source: Amazon.com]

    0682 Faith in the Valley: Lessons for Women on the Journey to Peace. by Ilyana Vanzant. Fireside. ISBN 0684801132.
    In the companion book to her bestselling Acts of Faith, Vanzant inspires black women to look seriously at their lives. [Source: Amazon.com]

Note: In one of the most fortuitous coincidences imaginable, as I was finishing this article (May 15, 1998), my wife called to me in my study to tell me that there is a woman on the Oprah Winfrey show who she thinks I might be interested in seeing. You guessed it: it was Iyanla Vanzant who was there on her empowerment mission. My sense of who she is is now accurately confirmed. Further, the May 22, 1998, issue of the Wall Street Journal cites two of Vanzant's books in the nonfiction column of its "Best Selling Books": 0605 is ranked number 1 and 0611 is ranked number 8.

Copyright © 1998 by Harry B. Dunbar. All rights reserved.
Dunbar on Black Books