Forgotten Helen Keller
Helen Keller is one of the most misunderstood women in history. While we are familiar with her story about how a deaf and blind girl overcame these handicaps through the force of will. Her adult life remains largely forgotten.
She is held up to school children across the country as an example of what one can do if they put their mind to it.
Patty Duke won an academy award for her portrayal of Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." But much is left out. What schools don't speak about is her politics. She was a radical with a firm belief in social justice. One of the most effective forms of censorship is to omit what one finds troublesome. The story of Helen Keller demands a more truthful telling.
Helen Keller was a radical socialist. She joined the party in 1909, but she had come to her radicalism before then. Her blindness, and work with the blind, taught her that blindness was not distributed equally throughout the population. Industrial accidents and poor conditions were the main cause.
"I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it." When Keller became a socialist she already was one of the best-known women in the world. Her convictions created a hailstorm of controversy. Once admired by the press, she now was attacked and her handicaps blamed for her beliefs.
The Brooklyn Eagle commented, "mistakes spring out of manifest limitations of her development." To which Keller replied, "Oh ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of physical blindness and deafness that we are trying to prevent."
Helen Keller devoted her life to change. She helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. As a white woman, who grew up in the south during the time when three black people were being lynched a week, she supported the NAACP.
Helen Keller spoke out against the First World War and supported Eugene Debs in each of his campaigns for president. She wrote essays on the women's movement. In 1929, at the age of 49, she wrote her book Midstream. In it she described her philosophy, about how she had visited mill towns and met with strikers. She wrote of how she once believed that if one threw themselves into life's struggles, they could overcome anything. She now said that she did not believe that anymore, "I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone."
Helen Keller's story is too often told as if her life stopped as a child. We are not presented with the adult Helen Keller, and quite interestingly, we drain the life out of her story.
She becomes an icon without meaning. Her humanity is covered up, and she is treated like a child. The real Helen Keller was much more complex and insightful. "Conclusions are not always pleasant," she once said. Sadly, neither are the losses to humanity from omissions of history.
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