Helen Keller: The Miracle Worker of the of the IWW
We have limitations imposed upon us when it comes to the literary, cinematic and theatrical productions that depict the life of Helen Keller. What we are offered is wonderful in presentation, but, it’s clearly one sided. On the silver screen, we see a young and frustrated Helen, born in 1880, work to break the chains of isolation that have enslaved her as a child with help from her friends, family, and “miracle worker” Annie Sullivan. Film “The Miracle Worker” seems to come to a dead end leaving us at the edge of the precipice. It is the merely the tip of the Helen Keller iceberg.
Where the film ends, her life as an activist and inspiration begins. In time, Keller would step through the looking glass and emerge as a champion and spokesperson for human, civil, and workers rights. The Helen Keller story deserves further exploration in order for us to understand who Helen Keller became: she a writer, public speaker, an activist, a Socialist, and an honoured member of the International Workers of the World (IWW). Helen Keller was an IWW Wobblie and damn proud of it!
Once Helen broke through her psychological Berlin Wall, her appetite for knowledge was ravenous. She was on a mission to devour and understand all that she could of the world around her. Her vision of the world and it’s inequities soon became apparent. As her vision of the world became clearer her voice became louder and her words became her sword of social justice. Helen and her miracle worker companion, Anne Sullivan eventually moved from the Keller homestead to New York where Helen was enrolled in the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. By 1900 she was ready to tackle Radcliffe College where she graduated in 1904 at the age of 24. In fact, she was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
While mastering her college studies, she also had learned to speak and spent the rest of her life giving speeches and lectures on behalf of people with disabilities and other causes near and dear to her heart such as Womens Sufferage, Pacificism, and Socialism. Keller was one of the first advocates of birth control. She not only overcame her speech impairment, but, was able to communicate to people of different cultures and languages who understood her message clear as a bell. Her political universe was certainly left of center as she was one of the founders in 1920 of the American Civil Liberties Union. Her advocacy and the power of her voice and message took her around the world.
One of her best friends was a kindly, witty curmudgeon of a writer from the American heartland who went by the colourful riverboat name of Mark Twain. Both shared leftist views of the world and by the dawn of the 20th Century both were labeled as radicals and their writings on socialist subjects were kept as far out of public reach by the government as possible. We wouldn’t dare want to contaminate the masses with a message of social justice, now would we?
As the industrial age marched along the assembly line she joined the Socialist Party campaigning on their behalf and wrote articles in support of the working class. She was an early advocate of and supporter of Eugene Debs in his run for the presidency of the United States. Socialism soon lost its appeal for Helen; she felt it was “bogged” down and was attracted like metal to a magnet to the International Workers of the World and became “wobblied” in 1918. Her activism in the IWW led to her proliferation of writings. It also fuel injected her activism and she started to explore some of the industrial causes of sight impairment!
While serving on a commission to that investigated sight impairment, she came to the conclusion that the collusion of industry and government were responsible for the lack of safety measures when it came to working conditions in the factories and plants. This also included poor lighting in the plants, low wages especially in the case of women, sometimes drove them to a life of prostitution where syphilis was taking it’s toll on their vision and overall health issues. This was one of the conclusions she arrived at that gave impetus to her outrage and subsequent activism on behalf of workers suffering under these conditions in every corner of the globe.
Once hailed as a champion for human rights, her radical stance and affiliation with the IWW unleashed a torrent of criticism from her detractors, some from the very persons who championed her before. One editor in New York said in an editorial that her thinking was a mistaken and distorted view of the world of the worker, and was due to her limitations in her development as a deaf-blind child!
Workers rights weren’t all that ignited her passions. When war in Europe exploded with an assassins bullet and it looked like America would join the fray at anytime, Helen immediately opposed America’s entry in the conflict. Her opposition led to criticism, including angry words from President Woodrow Wilson. She, of course, fired back with her writings and speeches, with a decidedly anti-Wilson tone to them. During this time and up until 1924, she spent most of her time when not touring or lecturing, raising money for the American Federation of the Blind, and devoted much of the remainder of her life supporting that along with the IWW.
Helen died in 1968, in time to see the youth of Sixties America embrace the Left and take activism to the streets on issues of human and civil rights, not to mention, an anti-war movement to protest America’s involvement in the rape of Vietnam. Her legacy lives on to this day. Her birth date of June 27th is celebrated as Helen Keller Day in Pennsylvania and was approved on the federal level by President Jimmie Carter in 1980 on the 100th anniversary of her birth. As a final irony, Keller, the woman who was a socialist thorn in the governments side is buried with honours in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. A remarkable life of a blind woman who could see things clearly and a deaf woman who learned to speak the truth and went full speed ahead on the path of justice and activism, peace for all, and rights of all human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.