Perhaps you have seen the movie The Miracle Worker. Perhaps as a child you read a book about the amazing girl who was deaf and blind but was saved from an animal existence by her patient teacher, Anne Sullivan, and went on to write books and give speeches. But do you know what she wrote about and what she spoke about?
The book Helen Keller (2003) edited by John Davis in the Rebel Lives series, is a collection of her speeches, letters, and essays on the issues of poverty, labor, injustice, and war. A socialist and member of the IWW, who spoke against World War 1, and the class structure that perpetuated poverty, Keller was never imprisoned for her views. However, the FBI tracked her for most of her life, and she was pressured by the American Foundation for the Blind and by the wealthy people who funded her work for the blind and deaf, to quiet her political views, especially in her later years when she became more “myth” than person.
In fact, she did through her life time speak up for her beliefs and fought for the rights of the poor and the need for peace in the world, however always with the awareness of the constraints put on her. The following excerpt from a 1924 letter to independent presidential candidate Robert La Follette explains the pressure she felt to be quiet about things she believed deeply.
I hesitate to write to you because I know the newspapers opposed to the progressive movement will cry out at the “pathetic exploitation of the deaf and blind Helen Keller”…So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment ma extravagantly, calling me “arch priestess of the sightless,” “wonder woman,” and “a modern miracle.” But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain it is the result of the 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! It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization, must indeed be deaf, dumb, and blind. (as quoted in Helen Keller, 2003, p. 4)
What prevents you from doing what you can? What constraints do you feel on what you say and write?
Helen Keller’s 1933 Letter to the German Student Body on Burning Books