I was browsing Slate today, and read a fascinating excerpt of Helen Keller’s 1933 open letter to German students who were planning to burn books they considered “un-German.” I did not know much about Keller’s political activism, and the letter was that proverbial window to the past, one that had been thrown open, letting in a forceful and refreshing breeze. Her convictions fairly jump off the page: she tells the students “Do not imagine that your barbarities to the Jews are unknown here. God sleepeth not, and He will visit His judgment upon you.” “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.”
I was thinking it was interesting that the Helen Keller I had heard about was the sanctified version, the one where she bravely rose up against her disability and overcame it through sheer persistence. The Herculean task of learning to communicate as a deaf and blind person in those days would be achievement enough for one lifetime. However, without taking anything away from that almighty struggle, a quick glance on the internet will reveal how much more she achieved, and the other missions for which she bravely fought (Keller was an early supporter of the NAACP, took a stand against poverty and advocated for the availability of free birth control.)
The fact that I was unaware of Keller’s activism is no doubt the fault of my own lack of curiosity. But perhaps there is another reason: I had not heard of those other achievements because Keller was a woman, and the story of a woman overcoming a disability is a less threatening narrative than of one who ruffles feathers with her opinions and attempts to effect change. So much vitriol comes the way of the outspoken woman. In Keller’s lifetime, one newspaper columnist who had once lauded her bravery in triumphing over her blindness attacked her political opinions as consisting of “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”
I am grateful to have read her letter and hear her voice resonating from eighty years ago, coming down so clearly on the right side of history on this issue and many others. I am grateful, also to have a reminder, from Keller herself and from the example of her life, that there is no excuse for intellectual laziness. We must question, investigate and think for ourselves, no matter who is telling the story and controlling the narrative.