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Few people can speak of overcoming adversity with the authority of Iyanla Vanzant. A rape survivor and onetime welfare mother, Vanzant has licked sorrow’s pot more than once. Employing the same determination and panache that took her from a welfare office to college and, later, law school, the 41-year-old Silver Spring resident has taken on the mission of helping other African-American women understand that they can do more than simply survive.
Vanzant is the author of three best-selling books on spiritual development: 1992’s Tapping the Power Within: A Path to Self-Empowerment for Black Women, 1993’s Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations for People of Color, and, this year, The Value in the Valley: A Black Woman’s Guide Through Life’s Dilemmas. For the thousands of black women—and men—who know her through these publications, Vanzant is becoming the spiritual adviser of choice.
Except for those by Essence editor Susan Taylor, Vanzant’s are the most widely read works among the recent deluge of inspirational books written by and for blacks. A cocoa-brown woman who sports nascent dreadlocks and frequently pokes fun at her own foibles, Vanzant surmises that the flood of such books is part of a spiritual revival sweeping the country.
“The world is killing us, and the way we are in the world is not working,” she says somberly. “People have discovered there is a better way. Those of us who have made the discovery have a responsibility to share that.”
Vanzant notes that the resurgence of interest in spirituality that has boosted her sales is not just a black phenomenon. She says African-Americans are about a decade behind the spiritual revival that swept through mainstream communities under the “new age” banner. “We were too angry with white folks to go get the information,” she says. Vanzant cites authors like Charles Filmore, whose work she read on the path to enlightenment. She also attributes her spiritual development to African-American thinkers such as the late Rev. Howard Thurman, the pre-eminent theologian who once headed Howard University’s School of Divinity. Vanzant says she doesn’t read anybody at all when she’s writing, which seems to be most of the time—she has two other books due out next year.
Indeed, it often seems as if the author is on a continuous book tour. Last year, she went to more than 40 cities lecturing and promoting Acts of Faith. (In the purse-size book, Vanzant uses the words of a variety of people, including Sun Bear, comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Keller as starting points for each day’s lesson and affirmation. For example: Sinbad’s comment, “Don’t let anyone steal your spirit,” becomes the foundation for Vanzant’s discussion of internal peace.) Vanzant says the book is so popular that some in the publishing industry want to de-emphasize the “for People of Color” in the subtitle. “Why is it that once we reach a certain level of spiritual enlightenment, they want to decolor you?” she asks with puzzled annoyance. Removing ethnic references from books like Vanzant’s might increase their marketability, but sales figures aren’t important to the author, whose mission encompasses debunking popular stereotypes of black religiosity.
Vanzant says her quest for enlightenment began when she was living with her aunt and uncle in her native Brooklyn. There, she was introduced to the West African Yoruba culture. Yoruba religion, much like Santería and Catholicism, includes a system of gods and demigods who are called upon to serve specific purposes—to increase financial well-being, ensure marriage, remove hexes, etc.
“I had a cousin who danced with [West African percussionist] Olatunji when he first came to the country,” Vanzant remembers. “I went everywhere with her,” she continues. “So when I had to reach back, I reached back to Yoruba. For me it was natural.”
Many African-Americans are drawn to Vanzant because she is a Yoruba priestess: Through her, black Americans find an ancestral link with Africa. Tapping the Power Within draws heavily from Yoruba ritual and ceremony to help women understand their power to achieve their “divine destiny.” The book teaches the basics about the importance of spirituality in day-to-day life: Readers learn how to bless their bodies, how to meditate, pray, and set up ancestral altars, and how to adopt a spiritual code of conduct.
“I do what other ministers do,” says Vanzant in the matter-of-fact tone in which she sometimes makes even her most poignant comments. “I marry people, bury people, bless babies….
“A priest,” she adds, “is the custodian of all the rites of passage.”
But few ministers do what Vanzant does. She is part comedian, part surrogate mother, part clairvoyant, and all wisdom. She also practices what she preaches: She starts every morning with meditation, and doesn’t take phone calls until she’s done. Vanzant spices her lectures (on Sept. 19, she begins a series of monthly lectures at Howard University that will run through the end of the year) with personal history—and sometimes painful personal stories.
In Chapter 9 of The Value in the Valley, for instance, Vanzant recounts her experience of spousal abuse. “He was six-foot-two and weighed 223 pounds. I was five-foot-five and weighed 137 pounds. The hallway was nine feet long and five feet wide….I was on the bottom. He was on the top. His hands were around my throat. He was choking me—to death, I thought. With every fiber of my being I fought him. Clutching at his hands. Scratching at his eyes. Twisting my body, trying to knee him in the groin. It was not working. He was still calling me a bitch. Still choking me,” she writes.
During the encounter, Vanzant recalls, she realized that her husband did not really want to kill her: He kept releasing her throat to give her the opportunity to catch her breath. She decided to stop fighting. “I let my hands fall limp at my side, my legs slide to the floor. I just stopped fighting him. I focused my eyes squarely on his eyes, then on his twisted, writhing mouth, and I just stared. He gave one last push, as if to expel air out of my body. And then, he got up.”
There are lessons to be learned from adversity, argues Vanzant. Instead of bitching and moaning, she says, women should look for the value in such events—they are gifts from the Creator.
For Vanzant, spirituality is a way of living. “There is nothing that isn’t spiritual,” she says confidently. “Everything I do, I do from a spiritual base.” From a spiritual perspective, she insists, there are no victims in society.
Self-determination is the cornerstone of Vanzant’s philosophy. “If we are not conscious of our thoughts, we create conditions,” she says. “And then we want to blame them on somebody else. People need to understand, God always says “Yes’ to you. God is the energy behind your thoughts. It’s your mouth that gets you in trouble; mind your mouth. Consciously guard your thoughts.”
Vanzant hopes The Value in the Valley will cause people to “want to do a new thing.”
“[I want] every eyeball that comes across the pages,” she declares, “to realize they can do better.”