“My cause will emerge from the trenches stronger than it ever was. Under the obvious battle waging, there is an invisible battle for the freedom of man.”
“I don’t give a damn about semi-radicals.”
- Helen Keller
Helen Keller, who died forty-one years ago on 1st June 1968, is to most Americans a folk hero. Rendered deaf/blind at nineteen months through what was probably scarlet fever, at the age of seven she broke through the darkness and learned to communicate thanks to the help of Anne Sullivan, her teacher. The “wa-wa-water” moment is as iconic to American schoolchildren as George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, thanks to its dramatisation in The Miracle Worker and the countless storybooks used in schools to teach and inspire the value of fortitude.
Her emblematic image has kept her as frozen in her childhood as Anne Frank, and our perception of her remains so monolithic that she is regularly the cruel butt of the American version of the standard British “who cut your hair, the Council?” joke. Yet Helen Keller lived for a further eighty years after that Eureka moment at the age of seven; she would triumph over her disabilities to become the first deaf/blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree (from Radcliffe College, no less), and it would be true to say that many do remember her as a saintly ambassador to others with disabilities.
But what the schoolbooks fail to teach us is that Helen Keller was a radical activist. The woman who has received the greatest possible American accolades, her image gracing a postage stamp as well as the Alabama state quarter, leaned so far to the left that the FBI kept a file on her for un-American activities. Having benefited from her privileged background, she came to recognise the social injustices of those who were denied the same opportunities to overcome their own obstacles. For Helen, these obstacles extended well beyond physical impairments. She was a co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union; an anti-capitalist and militant member of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World; a suffragist who campaigned for women’s right to vote and birth control; an anti-fascist (the Nazis publicly burned her books); and a pacifist, who condemned both world wars and suspected that capitalist gain was the American government’s true motive. Her anti-capitalist and pro-worker stance was such that at the 1919 Hollywood premiere of a silent film about her life she showed her solidarity with the Actors Equity Union who were striking by refusing to cross their picket line and joining them on their march.
Defying her disabilities, Keller was gifted in languages (at Radcliffe, she’d learned to read French, German, Latin and Greek) and she would further demonstrate her celebrated courage by using her skills to become a prolific and forthright writer. In addition to five books, she wrote countless essays, articles and letters championing and defending her numerous causes (she fearlessly lambasted the powerful John D Rockefeller for his (guilty) role in the Ludlow Mine Massacre: “Mr Rockefeller is a monster of capitalism.”). She would leave behind a rich catalogue of her political beliefs – however, these have been airbrushed out of her legacy.
“So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘archpriestess of the sightless’, ‘wonder woman’, and ‘a modern miracle’. But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics – that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world – that is a different matter!” – Helen Keller
Helen’s beliefs were a source of embarrassment to those who required her to be true to The Myth in order that they might gain. A fiercely independent adult, she supported herself financially (her relationship with her Southern family had cooled after she sent a donation and letter of support to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and, following that, her mother had sabotaged her plans to marry). After income from her writings began to dwindle, and the death of Vaudeville spelled the end of her lucrative “act” with Anne Sullivan (another ‘myth-buster’ that we tend not to hear about, likewise her Swedenborgianism!), Helen relied on her salary as spokeswoman for the American Foundation for the Blind – who, fearful of losing donations, succeeded in somewhat suppressing her “Commie” voice, if not her beliefs.
The camouflaged and neutralized representation of Helen Keller suits America’s own mythology of its Dream … the power for the Individual to overcome any adversity through grit and courage. And while that is a noble dream, the New Colossus has failed the tired and poor, the huddled masses, to whom it once promised so much. Helen Keller’s ideas about socialism, equal opportunities and distribution for All was at odds with America’s vision of equal opportunities for the Individual.
As her friend, admirer and fellow-Socialist Mark Twain said, “Principles have no real force except when one is well-fed.”