In Celebration of Life

by Stacey J. Sage – September 1, 2019  

Yi Peng festival

When my father died, all of the spaces that he occupied in my life felt empty.  He was my very best friend, my hero, the country of my heart; and one of the handful of people on earth who truly knew me and loved me in a way that made me yearn to become a continuous better version of myself.  He also loved my son, my siblings, my nieces, my nephews, and my mother in a way that brought me steadfast peace and joy.  Losing him was one of the most soul shattering losses that I’m sure I will ever know.  If you’ve experienced the death of a beloved parent, you know this type of loss all too well: the lingering ache, the strange sense of aloneness, and the subsequent melancholy.  It seems that no matter how fully a life our parents have lived, how old they may be at the time of their passing, or how much they may have been suffering, we are never prepared for them to die; and never prepared to fully let them go.

Everyone grieves differently.  My grief hit me like a ton of bricks at first, then it would lift up for a period of time, and then come rushing down again in waves. During the first few days after my sister called early in the morning to say “…Daddy is dead,” I felt both a sense of deep sorrow and extreme disbelief.  The thought of never seeing Daddy again seemed surreal; never being drawn in close for one his hugs, never smelling the scent of Egyptian Musk oil mixed with his natural scent, never having another conversation with him, never hearing his hearty laughter or hearing the sound of his voice say my name; I thought there would never be an end to my aching, my crying, my desperation for wanting the truth of his death to be a cruel joke.  When someone loves you, the way that they say your name is different. My father loved me and everyone else that he held dear like we were the last person on earth and the way that he said my name, at any given time, seemed to add greater purpose to every moment we shared.

The day of his funeral, I felt so heavy on the inside.  My son was only four at the time and I decided to not have him attend the funeral.  He adored his grandpa. Their love for one another was so tender, and still so new.  I didn’t know if his little spirit could take the pain of seeing his grandpa sleeping lifeless in a casket.  I didn’t know if [my] spirit could take it, and I didn’t want his four year old world to feel confusing; scary; hopeless. When I knelt down on our kitchen floor to face him and explain to him that grandpa had died; that he had gone to sleep and didn’t wake back up and that he would not be seeing him again, he looked at me bewildered and responded “you just don’t go to sleep and get dead, and never wake back up again.” As I drew him in close for a hug, I wept silently thinking: no, you just [don’t] go to sleep and “get dead,” and never wake back up again.  And life felt unfair.

That night in bed I couldn’t help but remember a joke that my father would always tell. It’s about a man who is walking around aimlessly crying. Daddy would of course fake cry at this point in the joke, and he’d really ham it up! So the man is just boo hooing boo hooing away and a Sufi walks up to him and asks: “what’s the matter, why are you crying so?”  This is where Daddy would really amp up his fake crying.  The man answers the Sufi through tears saying: “My friend died.”  The Sufi looks at the man with compassion yet responds very matter of factly saying: “Well, find a friend who won’t die.”  As I’m writing this, I can’t help but chuckle.  My father always had a way of directly and politely putting things into perspective. He was such a remarkable person. Even so, my father certainly had his struggles. He carried the pain of losing his mother at a young age.  He dealt with the possible shame of his family’s loss of wealth and reputation.  He lost all but one of his four brothers before he was fifty, and he wrestled with the memories and physical pain of the Vietnam war, and having to return “home” to the US where he and other soldiers were mistreated and disrespected because they were black. daddyHe also fought an on again off again battle with alcohol where he’d be clean and sober for years, and would then ‘fall off the wagon’. He carried his fair share of emotional baggage, yet he often said if he only had one choice to make over and over again, no matter what, he would always choose love.  When he transitioned, he left us with enough books to fill a library, and through countless pieces of poetry that he’d written, he left us with beautiful pieces of his life’s testimony.  He left behind a series of journals, many of which read like love letters to the countless family members and friends whom he loved so deeply and so dearly.  Some of my favorite entries are the ones where he details what it is he loves about each of my siblings, his worries with regard to each of us, and his hopes for our and our children’s lives. There are also the ones where he admits to his faults and shortcomings, and boldly states that the way he was able to love and care for his grandchildren was his redemption.  He also left us all with one of the most poignant, wise, and comforting quotes that I hold so close to my heart: “Love is greeting you everywhere!” And I believe that to be a truth that guided his life.

My therapist once told me “… you seem to be living your life in protest of things that are inevitable.” It was a simple statement, delivered in the most non-confrontational way; but it was rough receiving it.  Bargaining, Anger, Denial and Isolation, Depression, Acceptance; these are the stages of grief. People move through them very differently. As you might imagine, I spent most of my grieving in the Denial and Isolation phase.  There were days I convinced myself that my father had faked his death as a joke and that it wouldn’t be much longer before everything was back to normal. The isolation part played out through periods in which I withdrew from my family and I wouldn’t attend family functions. I couldn’t stomach it: the absence, the lingering yet unspoken sadness, the open spaces on the dance floor, or in the conversation where my father used to be, the palpable, collective longing. Mostly, it was the constant reminder that my mom had lost one of her best friends, my siblings had lost our dad, and our children had lost their grandpa. At the time I felt like there was nothing I could do for them. I had no comfort to offer them, and for me that was difficult.  And then, as if she knew exactly what we all needed to heal, my older sister planned a very special family function.  One that she knew not a one of us would miss, and that the majority of the near two hundred friends and family who attended my father’s funeral would also attend. In honor of my father, and because it had occurred to her that like so many other people, the only time we saw the large majority of family members and friends together in one place, was at a funeral; she committed herself, her husband, and my two delightful nephews, to throwing an annual “Celebration of Life.”

A Celebration of Life event is a joyous event. As the name suggests, you’re there to celebrate life. It’s more like a party than something that’s commemorating your loved one’s death. Incorporated into the celebration are the loved ones, the interests, and the passions of the departed. It was this event that helped usher me through the rest of the grief stages because it forced me to look at the parts of my father’s life that were not only worth celebrating, but require celebration: love will light
The way he drew people in and made it a point to     let them know they were loved; the way he created a safe space for people to be themselves and share their truths.  The way he showed up in every space and every relationship fully himself, and fully present.  As the celebration drew near,  I took time to consider and bask in, the light he added to my life, and it was then that the weight of my pain began to lift up off me.

Sixty-eight years of life, while relatively young, is a lot of living. Simply put, my father lived and loved long, and he generated love, joy, and understanding in every relationship he cultivated. Watching him do so, and continuously calling upon the memories of him doing so has shifted my perspective.  For if we can produce the energies of love, joy, and understanding, we can embrace the people who are with us, now.  We can make them happy while we are happy ourselves, and out of that happiness we can create spiritual nourishment, healing, and more happiness.  So that the question shifts from “how can we obtain love, joy, and understanding” and becomes “do we have the capacity of generating love, joy, and understanding ourselves?”  If we do, we’ll feel content and at peace, because these energies satisfy us and the people around us at the same time.  When we have the capacity to generate love, joy, and understanding, we can make the choice to do so, now.  We don’t have to wait for or on anything or anyone.  When we succeed in this, something so awesome happens!  Our worry, and fears go away, and we feel wonderful right away. And we are able to see and feel life as a celebration!

My father’s death has helped me see life more clearly.  Nothing in life is guaranteed, not even our next breath.  Everything in life is finite.  The strongest, most healthy heart has a finite number of beats.  No matter how long the journey, we are all here for a finite period of time.  I can’t imagine that anyone would argue with the notion that time seems to fly by. Yet, what my father’s life and death taught me is that though limited, there is certainly more than enough heartbeats, and certainly more than enough time to do what is most imperative in our lives.  Maintaining physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health is important. We have an unwavering obligation to ourselves and the people we love to practice self-care.  Spending time with family and friends and being fully present is important.  In doing so, we honor the history that we share with loved ones.  Teaching our children their history and how to love and cherish themselves is important.  Without self-worth and self-love, who can be happy? Financial security is important.  Finding and making peace within, and in our relationships is important.  All of these things are important enough to pay attention to today. Because life waits for no one. Life is happening today, and change – surrendering to the unknown so that we can embrace the new – is the comprehensive theme of our lives.  It’s paramount that we accept this, and that we see all of the inevitable changes as opportunities that bring growth and wisdom, and bring us to a deeper understanding of life and living.

On the ride home from this year’s COL party, my son, now twelve asked “do you believe that grandpa knows that we get together every year to celebrate life?” That sort of question rests on some of the other questions like, where do we go when we die? And can we reach our loved ones in the great beyond, and if so, how?

The notion of death, of nothingness, is a dangerous and unkind one.  It makes us suffer a great deal.  I now believe in energy and manifestation.  Certainly when they are pronounced dead, our departed loved ones are absent from this physical space. But I believe that the spirit lives on because the energy of the spirit is immortal, and that we cannot forget to look to our ancestral spirits for guidance.  I catch glimpses of my father all the time; sometimes it’s when I’m looking at my son or my nephews and see the way that they cross their legs the way he did when sitting and reading.  Sometimes I catch a glimpse of him watching my sister laugh; or watching my uncle (his last living brother) dance; and sometimes I catch a glimpse of him when I look in the mirror.  I hear him when I speak or re-tell a story or joke he once told, or blurt out one of his random sayings like – “so so so, blah blah blah, good sexy life.”  He lives in me and in all of us who loved and cherished him, and who continue to celebrate his life.  And it is with courage, honor, joy, dignity, and love, and with the strength and blessings of the ancestors that we can we can see the way forward, in celebration of life.


*Sending special thanks to all of the friends and family members who are unwavering in their commitment to showing up year after year; to my sister Shaunda, her husband Dave, and my nephews Jason and Jayden who spend weeks in preparation of the celebration and who open their home up so unselfishly to us all; to my brother-in-law Daemion who brings his homemade voodoo sauces and tears it up on the grill; and to the #KingofKing – DJ JahNero and his partner Timeless of Hurricane International and We The Plug who play the music while we all dance! 
*Photo Credit – Also sending a thank you out to my sister Michelle: the keeper of the photo of Daddy in Vietnam circa 1962 and to Jose Aponte who touched up the photo prior to my deciding to using the original, scratches and all.
*Finally, thank you Geoffrey Prime for taking the time to provide feedback and edits.

Why Sexual Violence in America is Really a Conversation About White Privilege

by Stacey J. Sage – June 14, 2019


Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, James Toback, Roger Ailes, Bill O’ Reilly, Associated Justice of the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh and even the man who is currently known as the POTUS: Donald Trump.  They are all among the names of a growing list of powerful white men facing or have faced sexual assault or harassment accusations, and the list seems to be getting longer day by day.  Captain James Dunn, Brock Turner, Judge Aaron Persky, Judge Betty Adams Green, Justin Schneider, Asst. DA Andrew Grannik, The Arlington Texas Rapists, Judge Michael Gray, DA Tim Curry and DA Joe Shannon Jr. They are among the names of convicted and unconvicted (yet proven guilty) rapists and the respective judges and attorneys responsible for helping them dodge accountability and not serve any time.  And then there’s Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein, the two white female attorneys responsible for the wrongful conviction of the former “The Central Park Five” now  ‘The Exonerated Five.’

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) and the Bureau of Justice, 57 percent of all sexual violence perpetrators are white and 99 percent are male.  EROC stats show that while 80 percent of reported incidents of rape are reported by white women, 96 percent of rapes happen to women of color.  An ABC News/Washington Post poll, 14 million women said they were sexually abused in work-related episodes. On top of that, 25 percent of them identified men with significant control over their careers as the culprits. If you’re thinking that 25 percent is a relatively low number,  Think 25 percent of 14 million? That would be 3.5 million cases of sexual assault committed by people of power in this poll alone.  In 2018 Bloomberg BusinessWeek featured an article America’s C-Suites Keep Getting Whiter (and More Male, Too).  White men account for 72 percent of Corporate Leadership.  They make up 83 percent of public board chairs and 93% of private board chairs, and make up 78 percent and 88 percent of public and private board members respectively.  In the Hollywood Reporter’s most recent “Top 100 Most Powerful People in Hollywood”, 76 were white men. On the “Top 100 Hollywood Power Lawyers of 2019,” 83 are men and 79 are white men.

Currently, a whopping 91 percent of senators are white, and 75 percent are men. It’s no better on the House side; 78 percent of the representatives are white, and 81 percent are men. There are 44 male governors and 94 percent of governors are white. And here’s the hit: men also hold 75.1 percent of state legislature seats, and 85 percent of those men are white. Are you starting to put the pieces together? I mean seriously, are you picking up what I’m laying down. Uncontested stats prove that more often than not, while women, and in particular women of color are the victims of sexual assault and sexual violence, whites (and in particular white men) are the ones who make the decisions, and who have the final say about whether or not the claim of sexual assault is valid, and whether or not the behavior/act warrants accountability and/or punishment.  And because whites (and in particular white men) design the laws by which America is governed, sexual assault cases are typically weighed and tried (sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to try) through the lens of white privilege, and as a result, are plagued by subjectivity. When sexual assault cases are brought to trial, and the perpetrator is a white male who is found guilty, “justice” still seems to bend in his favor.  For when it comes to sentencing, judges or jurors are supposed to consider their state’s sentencing guidelines, the severity of the crime, the offender’s prior record and “other factors”. But to say that this is an imperfect science is a gross understatement, because all of these factors, all too often, favor white men.

Everything about the way that we talk about and deal with sexual assault and sexual violence in America is tainted with our history of sexual violence inflicted by white men, and the attitude/social-political disorder of white privilege. Yet, we continue to have conversations that focus on consent; coercion; prevention; sexuality;  safety; accountability; representation; influence; toxic masculinity; feminism; “rape culture” et al.  Those are all very important and necessary conversations to have, *but-TTT,  they are only relevant or helpful to the larger conversation insofar as to what extent we also honestly consider how racial bias is at play with all of those elements, and at all junctures of our social and criminal justice systems. And with regard to victims, it’s also imperative that we begin to examine and weigh to what degree race, racial bias, and ultimately white privilege, have an overwhelming influence on how and whether or not victims of sexual assault/violence want to even engage with the criminal system.

If we take even a brief look at sexual assault/violence in an historical context, we’d realize that sexual assault was basically unheard of in America prior to European presence. Amy Casselman, a professor of Native American studies at San Francisco State University shares: “Because women played central roles in all aspects of indigenous culture, violence against them was fundamentally incongruent with one’s conception of self and society. And, in the rare cases in which violence against native women did occur, native nations used their own fully functioning systems of law and order to swiftly address the perpetrator and restore balance to the community.” Native Americans had their own tribal courts, which Casselman contrasted with the American ones of today, which she refers to as overall “less survivor-oriented” (especially in the case of women of color) because they rely on maximum/minimum sentences and presume the alleged assailant’s innocence (especially if the alleged assailant is white). The reason for this is because for everything that is considered in a sexual violence case, there is a subjective connection that in America is more or less rooted in some sort of implicit bias, which is connected to privilege. So for example, in the case of “The Central Park Five” location became somewhat of a focal point, hence the name of the case. And here’s why:

Central Park’s history itself is tainted with racism and privilege. Seneca Village was after all, the village that died so that Central Park could be born. Seneca Village was a small but vibrant community founded in 1825 by free working class African-Americans in uptown Manhattan. The area from West 82nd to 88th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues was still farmland back then, a good six miles north of teeming downtown, and this was long before public transit. Maps of New York City as late as 1840 actually stop at W. 26th Street (the second marker just south of the Empire State building), almost four miles south of Seneca Village.  In the summer of 1856, Mayor Fernando Wood sent the residents of Seneca Village a final notice, and in 1857 he sent the police to bludgeon them out. According to one newspaper, the violent clearing of Seneca Village was a glorious victory that would “not be forgotten [as] many a brilliant and stirring fight was had during the campaign. But the supremacy of the law was upheld by the policeman’s bludgeons.” On October 1, 1857, the city government announced that the land was free of “pesky human habitation.” The dwellings were demolished and Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux began to build Central Park. Fast forward one hundred and thirty two years later; no one ever said it explicitly but one of the dynamics at play prior to the rape of “The Central Park Jogger” and from the very beginning of the investigation into the case which led to ‘The Exonerated Five’s’ wrongful conviction was the belief that those black boys didn’t belong in Central Park to begin with because after all, Central Park was literally created for upper class whites.

How guilt and innocence is viewed and determined in America rests so heavily on privilege and lack thereof; in particular in sexual assault and rape cases. Furthermore, the crime of rape was never developed to respond to the social harm of unconcensual sex. Despite what we call it: “sexual assault,” “sexual abuse,” sexual violence,”  are all more about power than about sex. “Although the touch may be sexual, the words seductive or intimidating, and the violation physical, when someone rapes, assaults, or harasses, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control…and ultimately POWER.  So we can #metoo till the cows come home, and we can condemn “toxic masculinity,” and we can recognize that people neither ask for nor deserve to be abused, harassed or violated.  We can create buddy systems for being out late and night,  we can teach and take self-defense classes, and we can donate our money to the local rape crisis center.  We can pledge to never commit or condone any acts of sexual violation, and think critically about how the media depicts sexuality.  We can petition, and lobby the hell out of local, state, and federal legislators.  But if sexual violence is about power and power is about privilege, then isn’t time to address the matter at hand?

*but-TTT – used to encourage a long and pensive pause, and then consider or reconsider the first and second part of the sentence and how they may conflict 



%d bloggers like this: