by Kane Brolin
From the Editor: It is almost a sure bet that everyone who reads this will know the name Helen Keller. I was so fascinated with the book The Miracle Worker that I actually stayed up most of the night reading it in Braille. Regardless what we may say about blindness, most of us found Helen Keller’s story inspirational, and those of us who saw the movie marveled at the way Patty Duke played the role.
For all the prominence that Helen Keller has had, we really know little about her life after becoming a civilized human being. We know that she traveled and met some famous people, but how did she feel about family, who were her friends, and what were her political views as she lived through World War I, World War II, and observed not only America but other countries?
Kane Brolin begins to open the door for us by showing that there was more to Helen Keller than the miracle girl who was transformed from wild child to civilized dinner guest and speaker. He also hints at the box we can be put into when people believe they know us and demand that we act as expected. Here is what he says:
“Read the dictionary and you will find that a miracle is defined as some great and wonderful quality that can be brought to pass. ... How then, can one go about expecting miracles and causing miracles to happen? The number 1 thing is to have a tremendous faith, a deep faith, a faith that is so positively strong that it rises above doubt. ... if you train yourself to have faith in depth, it will release an astonishing power in your life to produce miracles. ... The great people of the world are miracle makers.”
These quotations, reproduced in Guideposts Magazine, are attributed to Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. For more than fifty years, Peale served as pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City and was legendary in his promotion of “the power of positive thinking” to a worldwide audience. Given Dr. Peale’s lifelong fascination with what it takes to produce miracles, it is perhaps not surprising that he openly counted himself a champion of another American dignitary whom many people think of as a walking miracle: Helen Adams Keller. In the foreword to Ms. Keller’s book My Religion, Norman Vincent Peale wrote: “If a worldwide poll were to be taken to determine the most outstanding woman of our generation, note that the top selection would be Helen Keller. The work she has done for the blind and other handicapped people throughout the world is enormous, and many a person with or without handicaps has been inspired by Helen Keller’s books.”
Growing up totally blind but having been educated in an integrated public school system, I knew virtually nothing about the impact of the organized blind movement. Even though I grew up in Iowa at a time when Dr. Kenneth Jernigan was at the height of his influence in that state, I was blissfully unaware of how much struggle the National Federation of the Blind was engaged in right then to further the equality, opportunity, and security of the blind. But I had heard of Helen Keller. Pretty much everybody among my sighted classmates had, too. But the Helen Keller we thought we knew was at best a cartoon character. There was the image of the “wild animal” that no one could control at age six, who had no idea how to communicate or eat with utensils. A terrifying image of this primal child is reproduced in the preface to Helen Keller’s famous autobiography My Life, written when she was just twenty-three years of age: “Once, in a likely fit of jealous rage, Helen overturned the cradle of her younger sister Mildred. Had Kate Keller not caught the baby before she crashed to the floor, one can only imagine what might have happened to the child. There was nothing anyone could do to reach Helen. She tyrannized the household, but no one had the stomach to discipline her even when she smashed dishes and lamps. People observing Helen thought her a ‘monster,’ not least when she plunged her hands into their dinner plates.”1
Then a “miracle” transpired. But Helen Keller never was viewed as the producer of that life-changing miracle; instead, the “miracle worker” was Johanna Mansfield Sullivan, better known as Anne: a young woman from the Boston area whom Helen’s mother Katherine brought down to the Keller estate in Alabama to tame her blind-deaf-mute “wild beast.” Through painstaking, patient work and seemingly endless creativity and faith, it worked. Through the process of finger-spelling, then Braille, the young Helen finally learned to communicate using the written word. Eventually, she learned to speak. And the rest is history—except that most of that history has never become known in the mainstream.
Helen Keller became one of the most well-known American celebrities of the twentieth century. She even learned how to speak in public, though she had no memory of ever hearing speech. Yet as we grew up, I and my schoolmates tended to have in our minds a limited picture of this woman. She had become a pin-up poster representing the deafblind as a whole—a remarkable freak, but a freak nonetheless. Sometimes in that era before the onset of political correctness, she was even reduced to a category of jokes.
Q: How did Helen Keller burn her left ear?
A: She answered the iron.
Q: How did Helen Keller burn her right ear?
A: They called back.
Q: Did you hear about the new Helen Keller doll?
A: You wind her up and she bumps into the furniture.
In hindsight, this display of so-called humor at the expense of a disabled person seems shocking. But what about the more benign representations of Helen Keller that were meant to seem so inspiring? Some of her more famous quotations are found online. They feel all the more inspiring, because many rely on visual imagery, even though Helen Keller did not have eyesight: “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.”2 But to dismiss Keller as a type of long-suffering saint held prisoner by multiple disabilities, who rose above the world because she could not fully take part in it does perhaps as much to marginalize and to stereotype Helen Keller as the cruel jokes her legend inspired. The result is that most of us go through our lives recognizing Helen Keller’s name but knowing very little about the complex, politically aware, and quite unsubmissive human being she truly was—the human being that most of her own colleagues seem never to have acknowledged.
Helen Keller was never a member of the National Federation of the Blind. Whether she ever corresponded with or met Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, or any other prominent Federationists of the 1940s and 1950s is not something I have ever been able to determine. Yet June 27, 2018, marked the 138th anniversary of Helen Keller’s birth, and June 1, 2018, marked the fiftieth anniversary of her death. I believe it is only fitting that we, who prove over and over again that it is respectable to be blind, should explore the legacy of this larger-than-life deafblind American to figure out what affect she truly had on twentieth-century American culture.
In the induction ceremony one goes through when officially becoming an active member of a Lions Club, it is not uncommon to hear the inductee’s sponsor read a passage about Helen Keller. While attending the Lions Clubs International Convention of 1925, she challenged the world’s Lions “to become knights for the blind in the crusade against darkness.”3 But what kind of darkness was she crusading against, anyway? Did Keller simply wish for Lions around the world to raise enough money to produce the medical miracle of “curing blindness”? I propose she was talking about something much more subtle but much more expansive.
The America in which Helen Keller grew up was very different from the America of 2018. Occupational safety, environmental protection, and even the non-toxicity of foods and medicines that we put into our bodies were thought by many not to be worthy of guarantee or protection. In the United Kingdom and the United States alike, it was not uncommon for children as young as seven years old to work more than twelve hours a day in factories and even in mines.4 The landmark seventy-fifth anniversary e-book commemorating the National Federation of the Blind, Building The Lives We Want, makes it clear how oppressive many of the institutions were which housed and employed the blind during the late 1800s and early 1900s. But Helen Keller during this time identified and spoke out against much more than the deplorable conditions faced by people with disabilities or by the poor in general. She dared to blame the leading men who designed and bankrolled our capitalistic system for promoting conditions that led to people becoming blind in the first place.
She noticed that the leading causes of disability in the United States were largely attributable to industrial and workplace accidents and diseases, frequently caused by an employer’s greed and reluctance to prioritize workers’ safety lest it diminish profits. She found that other social factors contributed, too, such as the prevalence of poverty, unequal access to medicine, overcrowded and unsanitary slums, and an officially imposed societal ignorance regarding matters of reproductive and sexual health. She discovered that, once disabled, such individuals constituted a class who “as a rule are poor,” cast aside and forgotten. They were thrown into institutions, mired in poverty and unemployment, cut off from educational opportunities, and segregated and marginalized at every turn. There was not a single census in any state or city of the country that even kept track of the numbers and needs of the disabled population. They simply did not exist as far as the powers-that-be were concerned. “Step by step,” Keller recounted in 1912, “my investigation of blindness led me into the industrial world.”5
Keller’s heart for the oppressed extended far beyond the disabled population. Although Caucasian, she donated money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—then a young and controversial civil rights organization that focused on opposition to lynching and job and housing discrimination against African Americans—and wrote for its magazine. At an antiwar rally in January 1916 (prior to the United States’ entrance into World War I) sponsored by the Women’s Peace Party at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Keller said, “Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the United States. It is planning to protect the capital of American speculators and investors. Incidentally this preparation will benefit the manufacturers of munitions and war machines. Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought! Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder! Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings! Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction! Be heroes in an army of construction!”6
Bothered by what she was repeatedly reading about the conditions underlying oppressed subpopulations and the mass poverty that surrounded them, Keller increasingly turned for answers to the work of such influential Leftist political and economic philosophers as Karl Marx, H.G. Wells, William Morris, and Eugene Debs. As a result, she joined the American Socialist Party in 1908. Later, as she became dissatisfied with the ineffectiveness of the Socialists to affect the kind of change she thought necessary, Helen Keller “became a steadfast proponent of the efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which advocated for the organization of an explicitly revolutionary labor movement. ... Before long, Keller was counting among her closest friends, colleagues, and acquaintances nearly every major figure in the radical, socialist, and anarchist movements. This included such diverse personalities as John Reed, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Langston Hughes, Upton Sinclair, Clarence Darrow, Anna Strunsky, William “Big Bill” Haywood, Robert La Follette, Ella Reeve Bloor, James Weldon Johnson, Fred Warren, and countless others of lesser fame.”7 In 1913, Keller published the book Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision, which synthesized her political ideals. And she never gave up her vision. It is said that for decades afterward, Helen Keller continued recommending that book to people who were asking her about her political inclinations. As of this writing, oddly enough, Out of the Dark was not available from Bookshare, Learning Ally, or NLS BARD, nor as an accessible e-book. A classic reprint was issued in 2017, however, and it is visible in a search of Google Books.8
Helen Keller was a woman who refused to let others place her into a neat ideological box. She railed against industrial abuses and war machines, yet the famous people with whom she corresponded included steel magnate Andrew Carnegie; automotive giant Henry Ford; AT&T founder Alexander Graham Bell; and Woodrow Wilson, the US president who entered the United States into World War I.9 Some of the risks Keller took, when proclaiming her personal beliefs on various matters, placed her at odds with those who normally were her brothers and sisters in arms. While not true across the board, it is appropriate to say that Karl Marx and many who followed his lead during the Progressive Era in which Helen Keller lived rejected religion out of principle. Marx had written: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. ... The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.”10
Yet Helen Keller insisted on not only sticking to her religious faith but on sharing that faith with others very publicly. Out of all the Braille volumes Helen Keller possessed, she said the Bible was the most frequently read: “I have read and reread it until in many parts the pages have faded out—I mean, my fingers have rubbed off the dots, and I must supply whole verses from memory, especially the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels.”11 But her publisher Doubleday mostly wanted a steady stream of books similar to My Life, focusing on Helen’s blindness and deafness—those elements of her life that fascinated the commercial reading public. My Religion, written around 1927 and long after she had self-identified as a political Leftist, was not a commercial success for Keller, and she could not find anyone to help her compile her many thoughts on this subject into an orderly work that felt natural to read. “A project so religious in nature had little appeal for Keller’s editorial assistant at Doubleday, and even less for Anne Sullivan Macy.”12 Yet Helen Keller was a passionate follower of the teachings of the eighteenth-century Swedish Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, also known as an inventor and a scientist. Swedenborg was a type of charismatic believer who claimed he had received personal scientific and spiritual revelations from Scripture but also from angels through various dreams and out-of-body experiences. Inspired by him, Helen Keller came to believe in the universal salvation of all souls and to identify herself with Humanism and with Christianity at the same time, decades before such mixing of New Thought and Bible-centered theology was considered acceptable in the Church at large.13 Keller’s diverse collection of professed beliefs likely tended to alienate her from both some of her friends on the political Left and from more conservative adherents to established or orthodox Christianity as well.
Having said all this, a huge question remains to be answered: What is the greatest miracle manifested through Helen Keller’s life? Is it that Helen, the daughter of a proud Confederate officer who had owned slaves and who clearly believed black people to be subhuman,14 evolved to become a champion of the oppressed and a supporter of the NAACP? Perhaps it is that even in early adolescence, she had compassion for those worse off than she, even though she could not hear, see, or speak. Maybe it is because those closest to Helen, even when she was a little girl, insisted on showing her the whole of the world as much as possible. In a letter written when she was not quite fifteen years old, from New York City, Helen wrote to her mother Kate: “We went to the ‘Five Points,’ a place in this city which was once dreadfully dirty and poor; but which has been greatly improved, and to the ‘Tombs,’ the New York prison. We went into the court-house which was ... very gloomy; with tremendous stone pillars. I was never so near a prison before, and I felt strangely and sad in the silent court-room.”15 One year before that, when she had to spend the Christmas season in the North at her school instead of with her family in Alabama, she had written to an adult friend: “Sometimes it seems almost as if it is wrong to feel so glad and happy when one knows there are so many of God’s little ones friendless, and even cold and hungry, but if we are to let their misfortunes banish the gladness from our heart they would not be any happier, so I am sure it is right to be as happy as we can, and do whatever we may ... to make those around us happy and look forward hopefully to the beautiful time when Christmas shall bring to everyone joy untouched with sorrow.”16
Maybe the greatest miracle displayed through Helen Keller’s life is her extreme empathy: that she so freely, and apparently without bitterness, referred to life using descriptors laced with visual and aural references, even though she could neither see nor hear. Shortly after her seventeenth birthday, she wrote to her mother: “What is so beautiful as the gleam of a golden moon the bosom of a quiet lake? It draws one irresistibly into the Land of Dreams, and the spirit in ecstasy drinks ‘repose from cool cisterns of the night.’”17 Even more remarkable is an open letter, written many years later, in which Keller talks about the joy she experienced after having “heard” a symphony orchestra broadcast on the radio: “I do not mean to say that I ‘heard’ the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. ... Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony18 someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibration, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and interwingling [sic.] vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roil of the drums, deeptoned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices. I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flamelike, until my heart almost stood still. The women’s voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorous [sic.] throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth—an ocean of heavenly vibration—and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.”19
But this passage, beautifully written though it is and sincerely inspired as it might be, brings to my mind a more troubling question: How did Helen Keller really feel about the dignity and empowerment of the blind or deaf, or about the characteristics of blindness and deafness themselves? Would she have been in accord with the National Federation of the Blind if she were alive today? Or was she more about smothering her disabilities under a cascade of normal-sounding visual and aural imagery? A little-known fact about Helen’s life is that Anne Sullivan, her beloved teacher and lifelong companion, was functionally blind in her own right; but Keller did all she could to hide this fact from the world—perhaps to help Ms. Sullivan maintain her position and income. In a private correspondence, she admitted: “I need not tell you that my dear teacher is ever at my side, ready to encourage and help me in my work. The only drawback to our complete happiness is her eyes. They trouble her constantly, and I cannot help worrying about them.”20
It is easy to find on the internet these days many citations of praise for Helen Keller as a humanitarian, an agent of social change, a tireless advocate for the rights of women and African-Americans, a voice for the downtrodden. But how would she feel about self-advocacy?
For more than four decades of her life, Helen Keller represented the American Foundation for the Blind, an organization consisting mostly of sighted professionals dedicated to working for the blind but whose agenda historically has not been directed by blind people and whose leadership historically did not include blind people. The AFB and the connections she made through the world of blindness and deafness professionals certainly gave Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy a lot of resources to work with. It gave them the means to travel to several continents, to rub shoulders with dignitaries, to enjoy an audience with presidents, prime ministers, and religious leaders. What impact did the limiting philosophy of the Foundation leave on Helen Keller the activist? It is hard to believe that a deafblind-mute young woman so empathic as to grieve for the plight of prisoners at age thirteen would not ever envision the blind or the deaf reaching a point where we could control our own destiny. How much did she know, and what did she really think about the National Federation of the Blind? As I try to answer this question for myself, I find no ready answers. And I am not the only one expressing reservations about what Helen Keller’s legacy means for disabled Americans of 2018. Haben Girma, an African-American deafblind woman honored as a Champion of Change at President Barack Obama’s White House in 2013 said: “Helen Keller, while inspirational, offers very little guidance for a DeafBlind woman in the twenty-first century.”21
Bottom line: For me, the legacy of Helen Adams Keller, as with many other things, is up to interpretation. I can read the writings she left behind, but I cannot place words in her mouth. Can I judge her statements or her affiliations of eighty years ago by the yardstick of today? Of course, I can; but it’s doubtful that this would be a productive use of my energy or a meaningful testimony to the world. What I choose to take from her legacy is that Helen Keller probably gives the most inspiration to seeing and hearing people, who might not ever have known an educated, capable, well-traveled blind or deafblind person before they read or heard about Helen. She might not be a champion of the organized blind as we stand today, but she is a great conversation starter. While she was never a member of the National Federation of the Blind, there is no question that I and others in our movement can build on what she did, taking self-empowerment to a new level. It is worth remembering that in a speech delivered in 1973, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, a titan in the Federation, expressed a word of praise for Helen Keller:
I have said nothing at all about the best known of history’s blind celebrities—Homer, Milton, and Helen Keller. There is good reason for that omission. Not only are those resounding names well enough known already but they have come to represent—each in its own sentimentalized, storybook form—not the abilities and possibilities of people who are blind but the exact opposite. Supposedly these giants are the exceptions that prove the rule—the rule, that is, that the blind are incompetent. Each celebrated case is explained away to keep the stereotype intact... Helen Keller, they say, was the peculiarly gifted and just plain lucky beneficiary of a lot of money and a “miracle worker” (her tutor and companion, Anne Sullivan). ... Don’t you believe it! These justly famous cases of accomplishment are not mysterious, unexplainable exceptions—they are only remarkable. ... As for Helen Keller, her life demonstrates dramatically what great resources of character and will and intellect may live in a human being beyond the faculties of sight and sound.22
Ms. Keller, you did not live to enter into the Promised Land of full equality or opportunity for the blind, for the deaf, or even for women. But your struggle, which the world witnessed and wondered at nearly forty years before the formation of the National Federation of the Blind, was a hopeful and perhaps a necessary step on the journey toward the hope of that promise—a flame that burns brightly in our own day. Thank you. May you rest in peace.
Taken from Fifty Famous Helen Keller Quotes: http://www.quoteambition.com/famous-helen-keller-quotes/
See A History Of Child Labor, an article found online at https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/
Taken from "The Politics of Helen Keller," International Socialist Review: https://isreview.org/issue/96/politics-helen-keller
Quote republished in Helen Keller, feminist, radical socialist, anti-racist activist and civil libertarian: https://boingboing.net/2015/04/20/helen-keller-feminist-radica.html
"Helen Keller's Love Of Reading," republished in AFB Blog, American Foundation for the Blind: https://www.afb.org/blog/afb-blog/helen-kellers-love-of-reading/12
“Helen Keller, Emanuel Swedenborg, And Universalism”: a blog entry found at https://etb-history-theology.blogspot.com/2012/03/helen-keller-emanuel-swedenborg-and.html
Taken from a synopsis of Helen Keller, A Life by Dorothy Herrmann, and published online by The New York Times: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/first/h/
"Transcription For A Letter Written By Helen Keller To The New York Symphony Orchestra, Printed In 'The Oracle,'" March 2, 1924. Republished online at https://helenkeller.localarchives.net/
"After Helen Keller: Empowering Students with Disabilities," published online at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2013/02/27/after-helen-keller-empowering-students-disabilities.
Taken from the Banquet Address at the Annual Convention of the National Federation of the Blind in New York City, in July, 1973. https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/
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