The first time I wrote about my grandmother was in 4th grade. She has been by my side, if not always physically, spiritually, ever since. Especially when I feel at a loss for words. My grandmother Christine Clyburn (née Gunn) grew up in Yanceyville, North Carolina, the Caswell County seat. She was one of 11 children. Many of her siblings went by country-sounding nicknames: Bink, Rat and Nettie. Her last living sibling goes by “Pee Wee.” She was the only sibling to graduate from high school—she went on to graduate from college, become a nurse, and pay for a house with her
own money—a house where shortly after she moved in, KKK was written on a street nearby. It’s for her, despite my unsettlement as a result of current events, that I am able to write today. It’s for her that I am able to write at all.
These current events are not all about race. But they are to me. It is in the hatred I saw across the internet over the course of a year, it is in the KKK support. It is in, as Van Jones so eloquently put it, the “whitelash,” against a changing nation. It’s something that I can only imagine my grandmother saw and felt throughout her life.
There’s a particular part of my family’s story that I think has an important place in the conversation surrounding race relations. In short, we are irreversibly intertwined. Yet, in many cases, we deny, we overlook, we shun, our shared history.
It’s all in a name. My grandmother’s maiden name is “Gunn.” A quick search of that last name brought me to the Caswell County Family Tree, which lists 107 Gunns born between 1723 and 1923. It’s telling that it doesn’t mention my grandmother or her siblings. All the people on that list appear to be white. My grandmother was as she might’ve put it “high yellow.” In her case, her very being indicates a semblance of a connection between white and black. This rings true in some rural towns in the south, a deep, in some cases familial, connection between white and black. It’s no surprise to me that these connections were written off, ignored and denied. Maybe it’s too much of an inference, maybe I am reading too closely.
But how can you deny such a close connection, the last name is the same? It is too close a coincidence that a black family in Yanceyville has the same last name as a number of white people that live in the same vicinity. The Gunn surname is everywhere in Yanceyville and throughout Caswell County: Gunn Memorial Library, Daniel-Gunn-Watkins Store and Gunn's Store.
In short, our connection to each other is human and we should treat each other as such.