What would change if she acknowledged you and said these words?
I first met Iyanla Van Zant at the “Million Man March” in Washington, D.C. on October 16, 1995. She was there. I wasn’t. But I was mesmerized and moved by her words. I read about her experiences in her book, The Spirit of a Man: A Vision of Transformation for Black Men and the Women Who Love Them.
I had invited Iyanla to be part of my first Men’s Health Grand Rounds Webinar and as I introduced her to the audience I began by reading what she had written in her book about her experiences at the Million Man March.
“I saw my father out there on the mall, although he has been dead for eleven years. I saw my former husband out there. He too has been on the other side for some time. My brother was there. My son was there. In fact all the men in my life I have ever told, ‘Do something! Just do something!’ were out there, whether or not they were present. I saw them making an effort, taking a step to do something for themselves. It made me proud. It made me humble…. It scared me half to death! The gathering of a million Black men helped me realize how long I have been the man in my life.”
She chuckled at the memory. “I remember like it was yesterday,” she said. “I had never been in the presence of that much testosterone.”
Then they got serious and began opening her heart and soul to me and all those present. She said things that men have been longing to hear from a woman and she said things that most women have been afraid to say.
“Now when I think about the horrific horrible thoughts I have had about men—about my father, my ex, I have to forgive.” She took a deep breath and continued. “It’s not them I have to forgive. I have to forgive myself. I just didn’t know until my son was born.”
Knowing Iyanla’s history, we can certainly understand why she might harbor horrible thoughts about men. She was born September 13, 1953, in Brooklyn, New York. But, from the beginning, things weren’t easy for her. She was born in the back of a taxi cab to an alcoholic mother. Iyanla was a child of an extra martial affair. When Iyanla was two-years-old her mother succumbed to breast cancer. This left Iyanla and her older brother to be raised by their father. He left his children in the care of a series of relatives, including an uncle who raped her at the age of nine. Although Iyanla knew her father, he was often not present physically and emotionally unavailable. By age 16, she was a teenage mother. By age 21 she had three children and a physically abusive husband. Nine years, two suicide attempts and many beatings later, Iyanla and her three children made their early morning escape into an unknown future; a future where she would raise her three children alone.
She’s done a great deal of personal healing, dealing with years of anger and depression. Now she is a world-famous author and host of Iyanla Fix My Life on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). What she has to say deeply moves both men and women. What she shared with us moved me and all those who were present.
“I would be anything not to be men,” she told us. “Men have such a difficult time due to expectations placed on them, lack of training and guidance they receive in order to live up to the things expected of them. I grew up surrounded by women. Women taught me everything.”
Thinking about her son, Iyanla recognized the deficits that so many men experience. “When raising my son, I became aware of the lack of manhood training available. Now we see it in the number of men incarcerated, the number of men walking away from their children and families, the number of men getting prostate cancer, hypertension, and heart disease. All is this is the result of lack of manhood training. Few males get the opportunity of having real rites of passage that would enable a boy to grow into a man.”
More and more men are recognizing this lack and developing programs that support young males. I think about The Mankind Project, The Sacred Path Retreats of the Los Angeles Men’s Center, and Dr. Mark Schillinger’s The Young Men’s Ultimate Weekend.
But it’s vital that women also speak out about men and Iylana speaks from her deep experiences and the wounding she saw with the men in her life. “The verbal brutality, the emotional brutality, the psychological brutality that men have experienced is heart-breaking,” she said. But she goes on to take responsibility for her own contribution to men’s pain.
“I was one of the worst offenders. Until I had my son, until I saw my grandson, until I buried my father who took his own life and my brother who died of an overdose on the eve of his 50th birthday, I didn’t truly understand. “I had to reorganize my consciousness of men. More importantly I had to learn to be the kind of woman that could share space with a man.” Iyanla admitted to us all. “I wasn’t that kind of woman.”
Reflecting back on the Million Man March, she realized that though she had been saying to men for years, “wake up, step-up, be a man,” in her secret heart-of-hearts, she resisted this. She finally had to admit the truth to herself. “If they wake up, this is going to be a problem. I had become the man in my life. When a male was in my presence and in my company, he had little place to be man, because my expectations were so low.”
Iyanla had gotten caught in the vicious cycle I see so many women caught in. They have been wounded by men and their pain and anger tells them that they can’t trust men. They have to take care of themselves. But that self-care can lead to a belief that men can’t truly be partners, that the woman has to control everything, including the man. “I was out of order in my thinking, my expression, demands, requirements, expectations. I didn’t know for so many years,” Iyanla admitted.
Her final statement opened my heart and ended with the seven words I think all men long to hear. “I did it all myself. I never left room for a man to do for me. I created my own nest, then invited him in to be part of what I built. We always get what we expect. If I expect him to fail, if I expect him to leave, if I expect him to lie, that’s what I will get…
…Not because of him because of me.”
I feel blessed to know Iyanla and have had the opportunity to talk with her and benefit from her deep wisdom and courageous sharing of her truth. If you’d like to hear the entire interview, come visit www.MenAlive.com. We are offering it to our readers with our compliments. I’ll look forward to your comments and I’m sure Iyanla will appreciate them as well.
This article was originally published on Men Alive.