“Teachers have held up Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl who overcame her physical handicaps, as an inspiration to generations of schoolchildren. Every fifth grader knows the scene in which Anne Sullivan spells water into young Helen’s hand at the pump. At least a dozen movies and filmstrips have been made on Keller’s life. Each yields its version of the same cliche. A McGraw-Hill educational film concludes: “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 though 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 is to help another reach true potential.”
To draw such a bland maxim from the life of Helen Keller, historians and filmmakers have disregarded her actual biography and left out the lessons she specifically asked us to learn from it. Keller, who struggled so valiantly to learn to speak, has been made mute by history…Keller, who was born in 1880, graduated from Radcliffe in 1904 and died in 1968. To ignore the sixty-four years of her adult life or to encapsulate them with the single word humanitarian is to lie by omission.
The truth is that Helen Keller was a radical socialist. She joined the Socialist Party of Massachusetts in 1909…Keller’s commitment to socialism stemmed from her experience as a disabled person and from her sympathy for others with handicaps. She began by working to simplify the alphabet for the blind, but soon came to realise that to deal solely with blindness was to treat symptom, not cause. Through research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout the population but was concentrated in the lower class. Men who were poor might be blinded in industrial accidents or by inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindness. Thus Keller learned how the social class system controls people’s opportunities in life, sometimes determining even whether they can see. Keller’s research was not just book learning: ”I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it.”
At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity—this time outraged….Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who wrote that Keller’s “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her developement.”
Keller recalled having met this editor: ”At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. 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. I must have shrunk in intelligence in the years since I met him.” She went on, “Oh ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! 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.”
Keller, who devoted much of her later life to raising funds for the American Foundation for the Blind, never wavered in her belief that our society needed radical change. Having herself fought so hard to speak, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union to fight for the free speech of others. She sent $100 to the NAACP with a letter of support that appeared in its magazine The Crisis—a radical act for a white person from Alabama in the 1920s. She supported Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate, in each of his compaigns for the presidency. She composed essays on the women’s movement, on politics, on economics…
One may not agree with Helen Keller’s positions. Her praise of the USSR now seems naive, embarrassing, even treasonous. But she was a radical—a fact few Americans know, because our schooling and our mass media left it out.`
-Lies My Teacher Told Me - James W. Loewen, 2007