What they never taught you about an American heroine
The Federal Bureau of Investigation kept a file on her. She was a feminist, an early supporter of the NAACP, and a critic of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her name? Helen Keller.
The inspiring story of how Keller, blind and deaf from the age of 18 months, learned to cope with her disabilities is widely known, thanks largely to the Academy Award-winning movie The Miracle Worker, which crystallized her image as saintly superhero. But what about the other side of this revered icon?
For now, the mythmaking continues. Keller’s life story—and particularly her role as a fund-raiser and lobbyist for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)—is the theme of a museum exhibit sponsored by the AFB that is currently traveling across the country. Exhibit highlights include a volume of Keller’s Braille Bible; the Academy Award she received for Helen Keller in Her Story, a documentary about her life; and copies of her best-selling book The Story of My Life, translated into several foreign languages.
Not surprisingly, the exhibit doesn’t even give a hint of Keller’s leftist political views. “We have nothing to hide,” says Liz Greco, AFB communications vice president, defending the exhibit. “Helen Keller worked for us for 44 years—advocating for human rights for the blind and visually impaired—for all people with disabilities. That’s what we chose to show.”
Until Keller began working for the AFB in 1924, she openly advocated women’s suffrage and opposed child labor and capital punishment. In 1916, Keller, who was born in Alabama, angered her family by sending a $100 donation and a letter of support to the NAACP. She even joined the Socialist Party. Keller believed that poverty is the root of suffering and inequity. Though much of her life was devoted to fund-raising for the blind, she wrote to a friend during the Second World War that “I regard philanthropy as a tragic apology for wrong conditions.”
Upon joining the AFB, Keller began to downplay her leftist leanings because she wanted to help blind people and desperately needed the salary. As Joseph P. Lash wrote in Helen and Teacher (Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1980), “she soft-pedaled her politics presumably at the request of the foundation. There is no document to that effect, but...there was a cogent case against Helen, the foundation’s chief fund-raiser, proclaiming views that were likely to give offense to many potential donors.”
That legacy lives on. Today, most organizations for the blind are still largely apolitical. “They’re afraid donations will decrease if people learn of Keller’s radical political views,” says National Council on Disability member Bonnie O'Day.
Despite her public restraint, Keller stayed true to the spirit of her beliefs. In the 1930s she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt about Out of the Dark (a 1913 collection of Keller’s socialist writings): “Some of the things I said at the time are now out of date,” she confessed, “but the spirit of revolt . . . remains.”