Somewhere along the line, the authors of high school U.S. history textbooks and many teachers who use them decided to treat everybody they talk about—well, almost everybody—as a hero. Furthermore, they follow the rule that nothing bad can be said about any American hero—no feet of clay, not even a blemish. The result is a flattening of our nation’s very real heroes from well-rounded flesh-and-blood people into cardboard characters.
Flattened the most has been Helen Keller. For generations, teachers have pointed to Keller—the blind and deaf girl who overcame her disabilities—as an inspiration to schoolchildren. Every fifth-grader knows the scene in which Anne Sullivan spells water into Helen’s hand at the pump. At least a dozen movies and filmstrips have been made on her life. Each yields its version of the same cliché, such as this conclusion from the McGraw-Hill film Helen Keller:
“The gift of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan to the world is to constantly remind us of the wonder of the world around us and how much we owe those who taught us what it means, for there is no person that is unworthy or incapable of being helped, and the greatest service any person can make us is to help another reach true potential.”
To draw such a bland maxim from the life of Helen Keller, historians and film makers have willfully disregarded her actual biography and left out the lessons she specifically asked us to learn from it. They have also withheld her words from us. Helen Keller, who struggled so valiantly to learn to speak, has been made mute by history.
My college students do know that Helen Keller was blind and deaf. Most of them know that she was befriended by a teacher, Anne Sullivan, and learned to read and write and even to speak. Some can recall rather minute details of her early life: that she lived in Alabama, that she was unruly and without manners before her teacher came, and so forth. A few know she graduated from college. But about what happened next, about the whole of her adult life, they are ignorant. A few venture that she became a “public figure” or a “humanitarian.” “She wrote, didn’t she?” Most cannot even speak that vaguely about her.
History, at least as passed on by our schools and media, has handicapped Helen Keller. Keller was born in 1880, graduated from Radcliffe in 1904, and died in 1968. What did she do in the 64 years of her adult life to become so famous? To become so ignored?
Part of the answer is: She became a radical socialist. She joined the Socialist Party, and when that wasn’t far enough left for her, she became a Wobbly—a member of the IWW—the Industrial Workers of the World—the syndicalist union persecuted by Woodrow Wilson. She then wrote eloquently about the inequalities that beset our society during the first half of the 20th century.
Her commitment to socialism stemmed from her experience as a disabled person and from her sympathy for others with handicaps. She came to realize that to deal solely with blindness was to treat symptom, not cause. Through her research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout society but was concentrated in the lower class. Poor men were blinded by industrial hazards and inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindness. Thus Keller learned how deeply the social class system controlled people’s life chances—even determining whether they could see. Nor was her research all book learning: She is quoted in Jonathan Kozol’s The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home as saying, “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it.”
At the time she became a socialist, Helen Keller was possibly the most famous woman on the planet. Now she became the most notorious. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who wrote that her “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.”
Keller reminded the editor that they had met in person. “At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them,” she says in Helen Keller, Her Socialist Years, edited by Philip S. Foner. “But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error.”
“Oh, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle!” she continues. “Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.”
Tourists hoping to learn more about Keller than the inanities presented in middle school might visit her birthplace—Ivy Green, in Tuscumbia, Ala., now a historic shrine of sorts—only to encounter more obfuscation. Visitors need to know that Helen Keller, who was blind, was also “color-blind.” Early in the life of the NAACP, she sent $100 to the organization and wrote a letter of support that appeared in its magazine, The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1920 those were radical acts for a white Alabaman. Ivy Green offers not a word about Keller’s racial idealism, however, nor anything about her support for trade unions, the First Amendment, birth control, women’s rights and suffrage, and even for communism. The Helen Keller presented there does not challenge visitors to think. Certainly some of Keller’s positions are arguable, but that is no excuse to silence her. Presenting a content-free Helen Keller doesn’t induce schoolchildren to venerate her. (Of the hundreds of students whose hero choices I’ve sought, only one ever picked Keller.) It only leads to Helen Keller jokes—you know: “If Helen Keller fell down in the middle of a forest, would she make a noise?” Seventh-graders amused by these jokes are not poking cruel fun at a disabled person; they are deflating a pretentious symbol too good to be authentic. But our loss of Keller as anything but a hollow hero is a crime, and the charge must be grand—not petty—larceny.
Contributing writer James W. Loewen lives in Washington, D.C.