Iyanla Vanzant Biography
Counselor, lawyer, writer, lecturer
Iyanla (pronounced EE-yan-lah) Vanzant has overcome overwhelming personal difficulties to become a lawyer, minister, talk show host, best-selling author, and national advocate for literacy. Through her self-named "dark valley experiences," those that like real valleys are necessarily traversed on the path from one mountain or peak to the next, Vanzant has emerged at a far different place from where she started and with a far more positive perspective on life than most anyone could imagine. Emerge magazine has hailed her as "one of the four most dynamic African-American speakers in the country." In 1992 Thomas Bradley, then Mayor of Los Angeles, called her "an inspiration to all women, particularly young African-American women growing through hardships in the inner city."
Using her powerful speaking and writing abilities, Iyanla Vanzant has been on a mission to educate women, especially those of color, to create a better life for themselves and their communities, by discovering the kingdom of God within. This best-selling author and spiritual-life counselor was ordained a "Yoruba Priestess" in 1983 (in New York). The Yoruba religion (from Nigeria) blends and adapts ancient African spirituality with contemporary African American culture. For Vanzant and her ancestors, African spirituality has been essential, since around 4000 B.C., to healing and transforming the mind, body, and soul. More recently, in September of 1997, she was a gospel minister with Dr. Barbara King, at Hillside Chapel and Truth Center, in Atlanta.
Iyanla Vanzant had a troubled childhood. After her mother died when she was two or three years old, Vanzant was raised by her grandmother. Rather than a haven of safety, Vanzant found her new home exposed her to physical and sexual abuse. She received good grades, even though she was not encouraged to do so. On a self-professed search for love and security, she found herself pregnant by age 16, and had three children by 21. She was married when she was 18 and nine years later, when she finally left her abusive husband, Vanzant said in an article written for Essence, "I accumulated several black eyes, three fractured ribs, a broken jaw, a displaced uterus, and something far worse: the death of my personhood. In a fit of depression, I attempted suicide."
After being released from the hospital psychiatric ward, Vanzant, with her three children in tow, went on welfare. She was on welfare for eight years before, struck by the unfulfilled purpose in her life, she applied to Medgar Evers College, despite protests from family members, and began attending classes. Three-and-a-half years later she left welfare forever after graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in public administration and being offered a job that, as she said in Essence, "paid more than my former caseworker made!"
Three years after graduation, she attained a law degree from the City University of New York. Despite more than 20 years of practical study in the fields of spirituality and empowerment, however, Vanzant chose not to go into academics. Rather than intellectual analyses, she offered very apt spiritual guidance. In all her books and talks, Vanzant has offered ancient, but still contemporary wisdom and common sense, leading her readers in and out of the "dark experiences."
Vanzant has experienced the healing journey from despair to self-reliance that she so fervently wants others to take. From her troubled past, she has emerged a winner, committed to an eclectic message of divine power and self-determination. This popular motivational speaker and prolific author has taken her audience by the hand and led them down the path of self-discovery, self-help, self-empowerment, and self-love. Vanzant stressed that all this social and self-improvement was made possible, however, only by "tapping the power within."
In confronting discrimination, racism, rejection, and alienation, Vanzant took an approach that, for a feminist, was very non-traditional—less political and more spiritual. She asserted in a telephone interview, "Spiritual consciousness does not make your problems go away; it does, however, help you view them from a different vantage point.… Your political reality is determined by your personal reality.… Racism and sexism in and of themselves are not what limit black women in America. It is our perception of them." Vanzant's Faith in the Valley, the companion book to her best-selling Acts of Faith, has inspired thousands of black women to seriously consider how their own behavior might have been causing certain avoidable problems. Her own journey served as an inspiring model for others.
According to Vanzant in Faith in the Valley, Black women, like many others, have found it "difficult to accept that life is more than hopping from one mountaintop experience to another.… Somehow we forget there is a valley between every mountain.… Eventually we [must] do the work it takes to get out of those dark experiences called valleys." Vanzant the counselor reminds her readers that "valleys are purposeful," that the highs and the lows, the light and the dark, have all balanced out and each experience was necessary to appreciate the other.
As she said in Faith in the Valley, "If we think of life as a twenty-four hour day, we know to expect twelve hours of light and twelve hours of darkness." Arriving at this realization would point the way up and out of a valley. The way out always involves a choice: spiritual growth, faith, and strength, or in Vanzant's words, "the stuff our grandmothers were made of." Women are to choose faith in God instead of the things that provide illusory comfort.
The author's pain and triumph, coming through her deepest spiritual valley, was most poignantly told in her memoirs Interiors: A Black Woman's Healing in Progress. While Interiors told of one woman's trip to insanity and her journey back, this survivor's suffering and recovery were told in a way that they became the story of all women. It was important, she said, for women to have discovered who they were so they would have made their decisions accordingly.
However, Iyanla has said that who she was has had nothing to do with her having been raped by her uncle at age nine. Nor did Iyanla see herself as having been crushed by the nine years spent in an abusive marriage before she found the strength to leave it. She has said that being a welfare recipient did not make her the person she has become. Nor did Iyanla define herself by a successful career as a public defender, spiritual counselor, best-selling author, or doting grandmother.
So just who is Iyanla Vanzant? In a phone interview with Dietrich Gruen she said, "I used to be just another Black woman, but today I am a child of God! This means I am unique, but I am not special. I am an ordinary person who is dedicated to doing very special things." And it would seem that others would agree with her. On the back cover of Faith in the Valley, fellow author and soul mate Julia Boyd commended her sister in the faith, whose message "comes right from the heart and goes straight to the soul.…Thank you, sister Iyanla, for your gifts (of) wisdom, courage, and faith sprinkled with lots of blessings and love. Iyanla truly loves and cares about us sisters and it shows."
The small Harlem-based publishing house, Writers & Readers, took a first-time author and "put her on the map," when they published Tapping the Power Within (1992), at a time when few inspirational works were marketed specifically to African Americans. Vanzant went on to establish herself as a best-selling author, with more than 400,000 in sales of Acts of Faith (1993) and 100,000 of The Value in the Valley (1995). Vanzant's later books have been lined up with mainstream publishers, with a promise of more in 1998.
Widely regarded as America's leading authority on spirituality and empowerment for Black women, Iyanla Vanzant went on to offer her insights into the history and souls of Black men in The Spirit of a Man: A Vision of Transformation for Black Men and the Women Who Love Them (Harper San Francisco, 1996). This book provided a blend of ancient African spirituality, practical self-help advice, and contemporary faith. This effective blend has stimulated self-knowledge and courage for Black men in the struggles, crises, and victories they experienced in confronting the powerful social, political, and economic forces at work against them.
The best-selling author who has empowered countless Black women has also reached out to women of all races, all who have yearned for love. Her book In the Meantime: Finding Yourself in the Love You Want talked about love, sex, and marriage in the 1990s. About what it takes for men and women surviving the current gender wars in a successful marriage, Vanzant has this to say, "When your life is working, it is not a dramatic production. We have to break our addiction to drama and crisis. And we have to stop competing." Vanzant has touched men and women at all levels, and has tried to teach them to pursue their lives with success and faith.
Three years in a row this celebrated author has won the coveted "Blackboard Book of the Year"–for Acts of Faith (1993), The Value in the Valley (1995), and Faith in the Valley (1996). Vanzant was honored "Alumni of the Year" in 1994 by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Education, an organization made up of the presidents and administrators of the 117 predominantly Black colleges in America. As one of the nation's "unsung heroes," she was given the "Oni" award by the International Congress of Black Women. In 1997 she founded and became president of Inner Visions Spiritual Life Maintenance Center. The next year she served as a national spokesperson for the Literacy Volunteers of America.
Vanzant continued to reach out to as many people as possible. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she was a regular guest speaker on The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 2001 she hosted her own talk show for ABC. When the network canceled the show after one season, Vanzant continued her spiritual counseling undeterred. Working through her Inner Visions organization, Vanzant lectures, records inspirational and motivational compact discs, and writes books. Her books have sold billions of copies. In 2004 she joined the reality show Starting Over on ABC as a counselor. On the show Vanzant worked with six women who agreed to live together in a house while participating in life-changing counseling sessions. For all her work, Vanzant's appeal and power continued to spread. Ebony magazine recognized Vanzant as one of the 100 Most Influential African-Americans, Vibe magazine called her one of "100 Leaders of the New Millennium," and Newsweek featured her as one of the "Women of the New Century."
Tapping the Power Within: A Path to Self-Empowerment for Black Women, Writers & Readers, 1992.
Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations for People of Color, Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Interiors: A Black Woman's Healing in Progress, Writers & Readers, 1995.
The Value in The Valley: A Black Woman's Guide Through Life's Dilemmas, Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Faith in the Valley: Lessons for Women on the Journey Toward Peace, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
The Spirit of a Man: A Vision of Transformation for Black Men and the Women Who Love Them, Harper San Francisco, 1996.
The Big Book of Faith, Simon & Schuster, 1997.
In the Meantime: Finding Yourself and the Love That You Want, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
One Day My Soul Just Opened Up: 40 Days and 40 Nights Toward Spiritual Strength and Personal Growth, Fireside Books, 1998.
Yesterday I Cried: Celebrating the Lessons of Living and Loving, Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Every Day I Pray: Prayers for Awakening to the Grace of Inner Communion, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Living Through the Meantime: Learning to Break the Patterns of the Past and Begin the Healing Process, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Murphy, Joseph M. Working the Spirit. Beacon Press, 1994.
Essence, October, 1989, p. 80; July, 1996 p. 104; March, 1997, p. 62; July, 1997, p. 65; August 2001, p. 112.
Philadelphia Tribune, January 9, 1998, p. C1.
Publishers Weekly, January 29, 1996, p. 16; March 18, 1996, p. 14.
Jet, September 22, 1997, p. 14.
Dateline, NBC, November 22, 1998.
Inner Visions, www.innervisionsworldwide.com (September 15, 2004).
Catherine V. Donaldson, and
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