This article was originally published at International Socialist Review.
Helen Keller is one of the most widely recognized figures in US history that people actually know very little about. That she was a serious political thinker who made important contributions in the fields of socialist theory and practice, or that she was a pioneer in pointing the way toward a Marxist understanding of disability oppression and liberation—this reality has been overlooked and censored. The mythological Helen Keller that we are familiar with has aptly been described as a sort of “plaster saint;” a hollow, empty vessel who is little more than an apolitical symbol for perseverance and personal triumph.1
This is the story that most of us are familiar with: A young Helen Keller contracted an illness that left her blind and deaf; she immediately reverted to the state of a wild animal, as depicted in the popular movie The Miracle Worker; she remained in this state virtually unchanged until she was rescued by her teacher Anne Sullivan, who “miraculously” introduced her to the world of language. Then time passed, and Helen Keller died eighty years later: End of story.
The image of Helen Keller as a gilded, eternal child is reinforced at the highest levels of US society. The statue of Helen Keller erected inside the US Capitol building in 2009, which replaced that of a Confederate Army officer, depicts Keller as a seven-year-old child kneeling at a water pump. Neither the statue itself nor its inscription provides any inkling that the sixty-plus years of Keller’s adult life were of any particular political import.
When the story of Helen Keller is taught in schools today, it is frequently used to convey a number of anodyne “moral lessons” or messages: There is no personal obstacle that cannot be overcome through pluck and hard work; whatever problems one thinks they have pale in comparison to those of Helen Keller; and perhaps the most insidious of such messages, the one aimed primarily at people with disabilities themselves, is that the task of becoming a full member of society rests upon one’s individual efforts to overcome a given impairment and has nothing to do with structural oppression or inequality.
Ironically, this construction of the iconic, or mythological, Helen Keller has resulted in numerous essays and books written by individuals with disabilities who recount growing up feeling deeply resentful of her. They saw Keller as an impossibly perfect individual who personally overcame all limitations in order to become a world-famous figure—someone who pulled herself up by her bootstraps, so to speak, and did so with a polite smile.2 In reality, such a narrative starkly contradicts the experiences of the vast majority of people with disabilities, then and now, who endure incredibly high rates of poverty, homelessness, discrimination, police brutality, and ostracism.
Distortions of Helen Keller, then and now
Keller fought her entire life against such bigoted notions and distortions of her life story. She constantly combated attempts to render her a hollow icon. Nonetheless, such images regarding Keller and disability continue to be reinforced everywhere. This can be found in primary school curricula, in the vast majority of children’s books on Helen Keller, and in most adult biographies of her. More often than not her radical politics are simply ignored. But even when they are acknowledged, it is usually to discount them.
One of the most authoritative recent biographies on Keller—written by the noted author Joseph Lash, and commissioned by the prestigious Radcliffe College and the American Foundation for the Blind—includes the following explanation of Keller’s involvement with socialist politics: “She needed to see the world as a contest between Good and Evil. Her imagination—cut off by blindness and deafness from many of the signals that brute experience sends most of us counseling caution, compromise, grayness instead of black and white—lent itself to dichotomies. . . . If she kept some grip on reality, it was because of her Teacher [Anne Sullivan], a woman of practical common sense.”3
This assessment, while expressed in milder terms, isn’t far from the accusations Keller regularly faced in her lifetime. Newspaper editors would use her disability as a means to dismiss her politics and to dissuade people from taking her seriously. Her radicalism, conservative writers would aver, was a product of the political “mistakes [which] spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.”4
Here is what the Detroit Free Press wrote about her in 1914:
As long as Miss Keller appears before the public in the light of a member of society struggling nobly under great handicaps and furnishing by her example inspiration for others who are unfortunately placed, she does a valuable work. But the moment she undertakes to speak ex cathedra, as it were, of all the political and social problems of the day, she receives a consideration out of all proportion to her fund of knowledge and judgment.
Helen Keller, struggling to point the way to the light for the deaf, dumb and blind is inspiring. Helen Keller preaching socialism; Helen Keller passing on the merits of the copper strike; Helen Keller sneering at the constitution of the United States; Helen Keller under these aspects is pitiful. She is beyond her depth. She speaks with the handicap of limitation which no amount of determination or science can overcome. Her knowledge is, and must be, almost purely theoretical, and unfortunately this world and its problems are both very practical.5
What is remarkable, however, is the power and tenacity Keller brought to bear in answering these attacks. She courageously defied any and all attempts to render her a second-class citizen. She would have her say, and woe unto those who would try to silence her.
The radicalization of Helen Keller
Helen Keller was born in 1880 in Alabama to an upper-class family. Her father had been a slave-owner before the Civil War in which he had served as a commanding Confederate officer. After the war, he became the editor of a major newspaper in Alabama. Keller’s mother hailed from a wealthy and connected New England family.
When Helen Keller was two years old she became permanently deaf and blind as the result of an unknown illness. It was not until she was seven years old that she began her formal education under Anne Sullivan, a twenty-one-year-old graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, who had been hired by the Kellers as a live-in tutor.
Keller’s education proceeded rapidly under Sullivan’s guidance, and her development soon gained attention from increasingly far-flung quarters. When she enrolled in a college preparatory school with seeing and hearing girls in 1896, newspapers around the country—and even the world—ran articles detailing her course loads, semester grades, and attendance records. Her every move became the subject of intense scrutiny and gossip. By the time she had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliffe College in 1904, Keller had become something of a global celebrity.
Then, in 1908, Helen Keller took the seemingly unlikely step of joining the American Socialist Party (SP). She cites two major factors that led her to this: First, her widespread readings on society and philosophy, which had ultimately led her to the works of Karl Marx as well as those of contemporary socialists, such as H. G. Wells, William Morris, and Eugene Debs; and second, her growing interest in studying the specific conditions of people with disabilities in the United States, which led her to draw conclusions about society that dovetailed with the former.
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.6 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.”
And what a world it is! How different from the world of my beliefs! I must face unflinchingly a world of facts—a world of misery, degradation, blindness, sin, a world struggling against the elements, against the unknown, against itself. How to reconcile this world of fact with the bright world of my own imagining? My darkness had been filled with the light of intelligence, and behold the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness.7
“For a time I was depressed,” she told the New York Times in 1916, “but little by little my confidence came back and I realized that the wonder is not that conditions are so bad, but that humanity has advanced so far in spite of them. And now I am in the fight to change things. I may be a dreamer, but dreamers are necessary to make facts!”8
In short, she had come to conclude that “our worst foes are ignorance, poverty, and the unconscious cruelty of our commercial society. These are the causes of blindness; these are the enemies which destroy the sight of children and workmen and undermine the health of mankind.”9
One final factor that attended her decision to publicly commit to the socialist movement is less explicitly political but nonetheless important. In 1908, she wrote a sort of existential treatise titled The World I Live In. Keller felt that if she were to be taken seriously by society at large in the assertion of her right as a human being to discuss the affairs of that society, she would have to mount a fundamental intellectual self-defense against her many detractors.
[Scientific men] think that I can know very little about objects even a few feet beyond the reach of my arms. Everything outside of myself, according to them, is a hazy blur. Trees, mountains, cities, the ocean, even the house I live in are but fairy fabrications, misty unrealities.
Ideas make the world we live in, and impressions furnish ideas. My world is built of touch-sensations, devoid of physical color and sound; but without color and sound it throbs with life. Every object is associated in my mind with tactual qualities which, combined in countless ways, give me a sense of power, of beauty, or of incongruity.
It is not for me to say whether we see best with the hand or the eye. I only know that the world I see with my fingers is alive, ruddy, and satisfying. . . . The colors that glorify my world, the blue of the sky, the green of the fields, may not correspond exactly with those you delight in; but they are none the less color to me. The sun does not shine for my physical eyes, nor does the lightning flash, nor do the trees turn green in the spring; but they have not therefore ceased to exist, any more than the landscape is annihilated when you turn your back on it.
In sum, she asserted, “Between my experience and the experience of others there is no gulf of mute space which I may not bridge.”10