Last week I wrote about Laura Bridgman, who it turns out was the first deaf and blind person to be successfully educated, not Helen Keller. What prompted that story actually had to do with a piece of Helen Keller history that came to my attention recently, and I wondered “why have I never heard about this?”
I would like to begin by saying I am not attempting to denigrate Helen Keller’s life and legacy or diminish her many accomplishments, but I was a bit shocked to learn these new facts about her. You can take it for what its worth and make your own conclusions. Read on.
Helen Keller, Socialist
By November 1912 her name and “socialism” had been in the news for awhile (and would continue to be for years to come). She was told by friends that she had “shared the front pages with baseball, Mr. Roosevelt and the New York police scandal.” She was happy that people were interested in her and teacher Anne Sullivan, who had married John Macy. “Even notoriety may be turned to beneficent uses, and I rejoice if the disposition of the newspapers to record my activities results in bringing more often into their columns the word Socialism.”
At the time Keller wrote the piece for the New York Call, she had recently been offered a position on the Welfare Board of Schenectady, New York (a position she ultimately did not take, having never met the mayor who proposed it in the first place). In September she was quoted: “I am a Socialist because only under socialism can every one obtain the right to work and be happy.” (The Evening World, 10 Sep 1912)
In the Call she explained that she had become a socialist by reading. The first book she read, New World for Old by H.G. Wells, was recommended by her teacher. Keller was quick to point out that Mrs. Macy was not nor had ever been a socialist – she simply thought her student would find it of interest and stimulating. Apparently Mr. Macy was an “enthusiastic Marxist propagandist”, as Keller referred to him, but his wife was not.
In the Call (a Socialist newspaper, by the way), she further stated: “I am no worshiper of cloth of any color, but I love the red flag and what it symbolized to me and other Socialists. I have a red flag hanging in my study.” She referred to her fellow Socialists as “comrades”.
Keller was appreciative of newspapers and their efforts to help her promote her work with the blind, but when it came to their criticisms, her answer was “the money power behind the newspapers is against socialism, and the editors, obedient to the hand that feeds them, will to any length to put down socialist and undermine the influence of socialists.” She was especially critical of the Brooklyn Eagle – “what an ungallant bird it is!”
She called the Eagle “socially blind and deaf” – part of a system that was happy to help publicize her social work, but wary of her disdain for capitalism. Further, she declared that “The Eagle and I are at war. I hate the system which it represents, apologizes for and upholds.” If she ever decided to write a book in support of socialism, she would call it “Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.”
Apparently she progressed to more radical causes, for in 1916 she wrote about why she joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or the “Wobblies” as they were known. The IWW, although categorically denying they were a Communist front, had always been opposed to capitalism.
Keller said that she “became an IWW because I found that the Socialist party was too slow.” During the 1916 interview she was asked: “What are you committed to – education or revolution?” Her answer: “Revolution . . . we can’t have education without revolution. We have tried peace education for 1,900 years and it has failed. Let us try revolution and see what it will do now.”
Helen Keller was willing to defend her beliefs no matter what. Concluding the interview, she declared, “I feel like Joan of Arc at times. My whole becomes uplifted. I, too, hear the voices that say ‘Come,’ and I will follow, no matter what the cost, no matter what the trials I am placed under. Jail, poverty, calumny – they matter not.” Newspapers believed her socialist beliefs perhaps stemmed from the “manifest limitations of her development”.
Later she would protest the entrance of the United States into World War I. Her protestations were rooted in her socialist (or communist) beliefs that workers would suffer and capitalism would triumph. Some of her fellow protesters were arrested and imprisoned, yet Helen was never targeted. She continued to write in support of her causes, however.
Criticism of Keller and her beliefs escalated in the press, accusing those who surrounded her like Anne and John Macy of exploiting her. As Helen Keller learned about these criticisms she staunchly defended her right to believe as she wished – and, as an American, right she was to defend them. She had, in some ways, been exploited all her life and upheld as a virtuous, little blind and deaf girl who could do no wrong. Her early accomplishments were exploited, and somewhat exaggerated, the “press” about her used to tout the school’s teaching methods.
Later her support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) caused another stir, especially in her home state of Alabama. But, again, because she was Helen Keller, the little deaf and blind girl in everyone’s mind, she sort of got away with a lot, including her most radical beliefs.
One paradox of her support for radical causes was that for a long time she had been a benefactor of one of the world’s most power capitalists, Andrew Mellon. Still she believed that charity wasn’t necessarily the answer for those suffering from disabilities. From that belief she worked tirelessly for the rights of the disabled. She was keenly aware of her “celebrity” it seems, knowing that she could put forth her ideas, radical though they might have been, and “get away with it” in large part.
After Anne’s marriage broke up, she and Helen were offered the opportunity by Hollywood to make a movie about Helen’s life. Helen thought it would give her an even wider audience to trumpet her socialist and radical beliefs. It turned out to be a mistake, however, since the film was quite heavy-handed on sentimentality (think “maudlin”). Helen Keller was portrayed at one point in the film on a white horse leading the charge to freedom. As Hollywood tends to do, even in those days, they “spiced” her story up, adding a lover. Helen later said that it was “too ludicrous for words.”
Her efforts for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) were greatly appreciated, but they were always uneasy about her politics. The government sent her to Japan following World War II in hopes she would help heal the emotional damage inflicted by the war. At the beginning of the Cold War and McCarthyism, the AFB was worried they too would be investigated. The FBI had extensive files on Keller, several years-worth, and portions of those files are still redacted.
I ran across an independent film while researching this story which does a good job of covering the “radical Helen Keller” – it even includes commentary from some of her great-great nieces and nephews in Alabama. The reasons perhaps why I never heard about this side of Helen Keller were summed up in the introduction to the film:
Helen Keller (1880-1968) was world famous as the little deaf blind girl, the ‘miracle’ child who triumphed over adversity, an image later enshrined by Hollywood in the film The Miracle Worker.
But behind the image was a flesh-and-blood woman, writer and radical activist, suffragette and Socialist, under surveillance by the FBI and in constant struggle against the contradictions of her public image. She was a woman who lived to old age, yet is fixed in the public imagination as an eternal child.
You can watch that film (about fifty minutes in length) here. The film provides more details and “enlightenment” regarding the life of this iconic American. In a way, it’s a sad story because she couldn’t live up to the public’s perception of her life. Even in death her wishes regarding her funeral (she wanted simple and intimate) were ignored – instead a large and elaborate service was held at Washington’s National Cathedral.
Again, my purpose in writing this article was not to diminish the life, legacy or accomplishments of Helen Keller. However, sometimes when we know more about our so-called “heroes” our perceptions may require a little adjustment – just sayin’.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!