Thanks to Iyanla Vanzant, many black women spent the late 1990s talking about houses.
Not physical ones, but houses as metaphors. In her book about love and relationships, In the Meantime (1998), Iyanla Vanzant began her trademark sister-girl explanation of romantic relationships like this: "We all start out in the basement of life. This is where we are first programmed and indoctrinated about worldly affairs and love affairs by those who love us," she wrote. "It is here that we develop our self-image."
Now that the 20th anniversary edition of her first book, Tapping the Power Within: A Path to Self-Empowerment for Women, has recently been released in an expanded form, it's a good time to take stock of the cultural impact of the welfare-mom-turned-lawyer-turned-self-help guru.
Twenty years of Iyanla is worth celebrating, even if her talk show and partnership with Oprah was short-lived. An ordained Yoruba priestess and an ordained minister in Christian New Thought, Iyanla was founder and executive director of Inner Visions International and wrote 13 books, including five New York Times best-sellers. She had a short-lived gig on the "Oprah" show, hosted her own TV program and then co-hosted the reality show "Starting Over." These days, she lives in Maryland, and holds workshops with the Inner Visions Institute for Spiritual Development.
Iyanla has had her share of critics. But to me, her work is a testament to how far black people have journeyed in discussions of black spirituality outside of a purely Christian or Islamic context. As I overheard an Austin preacher say, "When we got off the boat back in the day, we were not all Christians."
Iyanla's work has helped to open up the discussion of black faith to include African spiritual traditions. She introduced millions of readers to Orishas, which in Yoruban traditions are considered to be emissaries of God similar to Greek gods or Catholic saints. Her work has emphasized our ongoing connection to the ancestors, to African Gods and goddesses in ways that echo Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf." (Shange relied upon the symbolism of the seven African powers, by dressing each woman in a different color associated with the spirits.)
I discovered Iyanla's work at a pivotal point in my development as a young woman when I had few elders in my life to guide me. Ten years ago, my two best friends and I spent the summer interning on Wall Street, student-loaning our way through Ivy League and Seven Sister colleges. We didn't fit in the corporate investment banking world, but it was fun to try on the suits. Although we were all fly and making the most money we had ever made, our souls were weary.
We had parents battling drug and alcohol addictions, special-needs relatives, divorce, illness and debt. I had run away from home, mental illness, poverty and abuse a couple times. Not one of us, up to that point, had been able to stay in a healthy romantic relationship.
I also had a confused sense of religious identity. I had been raised Catholic and I believed in a mysterious and removed male God obscured by wafts of frankincense smoke. The Jesus I knew did not feel like a friend. But every Sunday, kneeling beside my mother in a pew, I wondered what it was like to be in a space and know God.
And then, there was Iyanla. She had grown up in poverty, but she had been doing her best with what God had given her—the lawyer-turned-empowerment specialist who seemed to sing a black girl's song. We hadn't ever heard anything like it. Heart & Soul magazine felt us: It dubbed Iyanla "our homegirl priestess for the new millennium."
Admittedly, my girlfriends and I got nearly beside ourselves with loving Iyanla for a time. We did not become fanatics, but we wore out that house metaphor. "Girl, you are in the basement! Clean your windows!" would be our response to a date gone wrong. But she is part of the reason we were able to talk about our "valleys." She freed us, in a way, to talk to each other in a spiritual, nonjudgmental language that helped us open our hearts beyond the surface of what was happening in our lives.
Iyanla has been criticized over the years—both in print and in private circles—by some Christians for a questionable blending of traditions. In an Emerge magazine article in 2000, the Rev. Terri McFaddin, an ordained Christian minister in California, accused Iyanla of selling an ambiguous message that blends Yoruban and Christian practice in a contradictory way that "lacks spiritual integrity."
Other Christians have depicted her in a cult-like light.
Iyanla has dismissed these charges, arguing that she was teaching "universal law."
As she writes in Tapping the Power Within (yes, I also have a copy of the original, slim version), we should all be taking from her work, or that of any mentor or spiritual adviser, what works for us and leave the rest.
To that, I say, thank you. And "Amen."
Joshunda Sanders is an Austin-based writer.