Jefferson County native Jan Willis (1948- ) is an author, retired academic, and internationally recognized scholar of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. She has written three books on Buddhism/Buddhist practice: The Diamond Light (1972), On Knowing Reality (1979), and Enlightened Beings (1995), and edited Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet (1989). Her memoir, Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey, was published in 2001 and was republished/subtitled as Black, Baptist, and Buddhist: One Woman’s Spiritual Journey. Willis writes in Dreaming Me of the costs of being a black woman from Alabama who has chosen a field in which few if any black women before her taught. In 2020, she published a compilation of her essays under the title Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra.
Jan Willis Janice Dean Willis was born in Docena, Jefferson County, on February 20, 1948, the younger of two daughters of Oram Willis, a steelworker and deacon in the local Baptist Church, and Dorothy “Dot” or “Dor-thay” Willis, a homemaker. Willis was subjected to the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow South as well as racism from the local African American community because of her light skin, which caused many family and friends to refer to her as “white gal.” Her mother’s father, Alex White, was the son of a white man, and she discovered that she had both Jewish and Choctaw ancestors. The nickname “white gal” shamed her to the core because both of her parents were black.
Oram Willis had been prevented from attending college as a boy, and he was determined that his daughters would not be denied an education. As a young man, he had run away to Talladega College after graduating from high school, and he camped on the lawn of the campus for a week. His father forced him to come back home, believing that an African American man destined for the steel mills had no need for a college degree. Self-educated, Oram would ask his daughters questions, expecting them to find answers and think for themselves. Dorothy Willis, on the other hand, was a deeply religious woman who feared the growing intellectual lives of her daughters. Willis started her education at the segregated school in Docena in 1954. A gifted child, Jan Willis was allowed to skip a grade. When the white school superintendent came to visit the district, she was singled out to “perform” for him. She was one of four black students selected to represent the school in a nationally broadcast television program. The documentary, narrated by Walter Cronkite, never aired in Alabama.
When Jan won scholarships to several Ivy League schools, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the family’s lawn. In 1963, while attending Westfield High School, Jan Willis, her sister Sandy, and their parents marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham during the Birmingham Campaign. Even though the group faced police dogs and fire hoses, Willis knew that she wanted to be part of a bigger world and work toward making it more peaceful.
After graduating from high school in 1965, Willis was one of a very few black students recruited by an Ivy League school, with Cornell University seeking her out and offering her admission. She rode a bus north to Ithaca, New York, for 27 hours, not knowing if she would be able to find food or be allowed to use a bathroom until she arrived at her destination. Her father’s belief in education inspired her to make the journey, and her mother’s religious faith sustained her during it; indeed she has stated that she experienced a vision of Jesus gliding alongside the bus.
At Cornell, she found herself isolated by the largely white student body; for example, none of them told her where to purchase thermal underwear for the bitter upstate New York winters. During her undergraduate years, her interest in equality led her to become part of the Black Student Movement at Cornell. A love of philosophy and an interest in Buddhism, paired with watching anti-war groups (America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was heating up), led Willis to apply to go to India for her junior year to study meditation. Her application was accepted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was the only African American in the program. While in India, she studied on the campus of Banaras Hindu University, where her curriculum included Hindi, Buddhist philosophy, and a research project on contemporary Hindi poetry; she also enrolled in an extra course on music in which she learned to play the sitar. During 1967-68, her year abroad, there were Hindu/Muslim riots in the country and a growing anti-English sentiment on campus. She also encountered Tibetans living in exile who invited her to visit their monasteries. After the formal educational experience ended, the students were allowed to travel elsewhere in Asia; Willis chose to visit Nepal.
During her senior year of college, she was one of the approximately 150 black students at Cornell who took over Willard Strait Hall, Cornell’s student union, in response to a cross burning on the lawn at the university. Because several of the students were armed, Willis was forced to formulate her own beliefs about violent protest versus peaceful protest, as she had witnessed marching in Alabama. Willis was the only woman given a leadership role (Minister of Women’s Safety) in the Black Student Movement.
In 1969, she earned her bachelor’s degree and also accepted a job as teaching assistant for a philosophy course at Cornell. At the end of the year, her thesis advisor made Willis a very unusual offer. She could be admitted to the graduate studies program in philosophy and granted her first year there, in absentia, which would allow her to return to Nepal on a University Traveling Fellowship. Willis, along with friends, spent the fall of 1969 hitchhiking through Europe (where the trio had a near-death experience) before returning to Nepal where Willis met Lama Yeshe, who would become her teacher and guide in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. They would remain close friends and colleagues until his death in 1984.
In 1970, Willis decided that she wanted to teach and entered the doctoral program in Indic and Buddhist Studies at Columbia University in New York City. In January 1974, while completing her doctoral dissertation, Willis took a teaching position in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she also met author Alex Haley and formed a special bond with him. Her dissertation was a translation and analysis of a fourth century Buddhist philosophical treatise, and she earned her Ph.D. in 1976.
In 1977, Willis was hired by Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and spent her entire career there and is currently a visiting professor at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. At Wesleyan until 2013, she also served as Acting Director of the Center of African American Studies and Chair of the Department of Religion. In 2003, she was awarded Wesleyan University’s Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching and was named one of Thirteen Distinguished Leaders of Faith-based Health Initiatives by Aetna Incorporated. She has been featured in Newsweek (2005), was named one of TIME magazine’s “Six Spiritual Leaders of the Millennium” (2000); and Ebony named her one of its “Power 150” most influential African Americans. She was a frequent contributor to the “On Faith” blog co-sponsored by Newsweek and the Washington Post.
Willis has studied with Tibetan Buddhists in India, Nepal, Switzerland, and the United States for more than 40 years and was one of the first western women to visit the monasteries and work with the lamas. She has spent much of her teaching and writing life translating Tibetan texts with the intention of making them more accessible to westerners. She has written about and published extensively on meditation, sacred biography, women, religion, and social change. Dreaming Me, her only work intended for a popular audience, is in the tradition of Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Alex Haley’s Roots.
Kingsbury, Pam. Inner Voices, Inner Views: Conversations with Southern Writers. Norwalk, Conn.: Enolam Press, 2005.
Underwood, Anne. “Tibetan Buddhism: Learning to Let Go.” Newsweek, August 28, 2005.
Willis, Jan. Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist, One Woman’s Spiritual Journey. Boston, Mass.: Wisdom Publications, 2008.