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Sweatpants & History | Helen Keller and Her Protean Legacy

By Jessica Grey

A semi-brief aside, before I jump headlong into this discussion:

There are a number of pitfalls folks seem to stumble into when discussing figures like Helen Keller, not least of which are: a) denying Ms. Keller the courtesy of being the subject of her own story—so many turn Anne Sullivan into the subject, stripping Keller of her agency and, essentially, turning her into a prop in the non-disabled person’s story; and b) the temptation to get all inspiration porn-y (Ew. No, really: ewwwww. Don’t do that!). Another pitfall—though this is not particular to Ms. Keller, rather it’s an issue across a good many discussions of historical figures—is the tendency to obscure or erase details of a person’s life that don’t fit into the nicely packaged master narrative that we really want to use to describe them. All of this is to say that I don’t know that I’ll be discussing the Helen Keller story that occupies the cultural imaginary—this is not going to be a brief summary of The Miracle Worker. So, you know, hold onto your butts.

Source From left to right: Helen Keller, Elizabeth Robin, Edith Thomas, and Thomas Stringer

Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in northern Alabama to a decidedly Southern family: the Kellers in Alabama had been among those who felt entitled to own other human beings, her father and maternal grandfather both served as officers in the Confederate Army, and the family boasted kinship to General Robert E. Lee. She was both sighted and hearing when she was born, but contracted some sort of illness—thought to be meningitis or scarlet fever—which claimed her sight and her hearing when she was around a year and a half old.

Suddenly cut off sensorily from the world—and right around the age of rapid language development—, young Helen had very few ways of expressing herself. The gestures she had used before she lost sight and hearing became vital ways of communicating basic ideas. Understandably, feeling different and cut off from the people around her—knowing that she was different—, Ms. Keller was often upset, just as I imagine anyone would if they felt trapped in a world filled with people they could not understand and could not understand them. As a result, it’s widely reported that she acted out often: I have seen varying accounts referring to her as “uncontrollable” and “near-feral.” While her outbursts sometimes put her baby sister in harm’s way—which definitely needed to be addressed—, those descriptions very much frame her as a thing to be controlled or tamed and frame her existence in the context of the difficulties it posed to the non-disabled people around her… which is pretty shitty, if not altogether uncommon these days too.

Helen Keller and Alexander Graham Bell

Enter Anne Sullivan, a recent graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, by circuitous way of Charles Dickens’ American Notes, a trip to Baltimore, and a conversation with Alexander Graham Bell. This is the part of the story that everyone knows: Ms. Sullivan arrives at the Keller family home and, after seemingly endless frustrating episodes, she is finally able to break through the dark silence to reach Helen using that fundamental, life-giving element—water.

 

I don’t mean to discredit Anne Sullivan here. By all accounts, she was a rather gifted instructor who carried with her the principles of Montessori education as she pioneered a kind of touch-teaching that built off of the Tad-Oma method. Further, her general worldview impacted Helen Keller in innumerable ways—it is, in large part, because of the influence of Ms. Sullivan that Ms. Keller developed the political consciousness she did. So, let me be clear, I think Anne Sullivan was pretty amazing; I just don’t enjoy the way the talk of Ms. Sullivan ends up decentering Helen Keller from her own life story.

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

Because of the gains made in communication as Ms. Keller and Ms. Sullivan worked together, Helen was able to pursue a formal education, attending Perkins School for the Blind, Horace Mann, Wright Humason School for the Deaf, The Cambridge School for Young Ladies, and, eventually, earning a bachelor’s degree at Radcliffe College. She was the first blind-deaf person to earn a bachelor’s degree. Her degree was actually paid for by Henry Huttleston Rogers to whom she had been introduced by Samuel Clemens. With the assistance of John Macy—a Harvard instructor, social critic, and Anne Sullivan’s would-be (and, then, estranged) husband—, Keller published her first book in 1905, The Story of My Life.

Left to right: Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, Samuel Clemens, and Laurence Hutton

What is so often left out of discussions about Helen Keller is just how fiercely political she was. She was a suffragist, an anti-war activist, an anti-racist activist, a disability rights advocate, and a proud Socialist. She traveled the world, visiting India and Japan, trying to spread awareness of the needs of Deaf communities spanning the globe. She met with every United States president from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy—and appears to have enjoyed a friendly acquaintance with Eleanor Roosevelt. She gave speeches and wrote columns. She was firm in her political and social convictions and would not be silenced on the topics she felt compelled to speak on.

 

Another fact that is almost always glossed over?

Helen Keller was an ardent supporter of eugenics. Yeah. Given her track record as a disability rights advocate, her supporting eugenics seems… fucked up. Nevertheless, she once wrote: “Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that a human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world.” So, you know—that sucks. But I think it is something that it important to acknowledge: I think we do a disservice to our heroes and to ourselves by failing to remember that even the best of all of us are still human and, as such, are very much subject to being deeply flawed. Helen Keller was, in so many ways, an incredibly rad human being. She was also human, so there are some aspects of her legacy that are decidedly not okay.

Despite her flaws, Helen Keller made an enormous impact on the world, particularly where it comes to advocating for deaf, blind, and deaf-blind folks. She was bold and fierce and outspoken. She fundamentally believed in the rights of humans to dignity, education, and fulfillment. She was not an empty vessel for platitudes about resilience and she was not the prop in someone else’s magic show. Ms. Keller was a whole, complex, and fascinating person. And today she would have been one-hundred and thirty-seven years old. Happy Birthday, Helen Keller!

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