Today is Helen Keller’s birthday. For many, Helen Keller is a national or even an international figure—one whose influence crossed borders and cultures. But, argues Kim E. Nielsen, the early experiences that made Keller tick were uniquely Southern, and she maintained close ties to the South even as she questioned its racism.
Ivy Green, Keller’s birthplace in Tuscumbia, Alabama, is where she had her earliest experiences. Keller’s father, Arthur H. Keller, was a Confederate captain related to Robert E. Lee. Keller came of age in a household “embedded in stories of the Old South”—stories that troubled and discomfited Anne Sullivan. In fact, Sullivan considered not taking a job with the Kellers at all because she assumed (correctly) that they had once owned slaves. Keller herself, writes Nielsen, “had already learned to reinforce racial hierarchies” by the time Sullivan came to teach her and enjoyed the privileges of white race in the Jim Crow era. At the same time, her deaf-blind status exposed her to discrimination, fear, and alienation.
Sullivan’s arrival transformed Keller’s life in several ways. Not only did she learn to communicate, but she learned about race from Sullivan and began to visit the North with her Yankee teacher. As an adult, Keller furthered Sullivan’s Progressive ideals and distanced herself from what many northern women at the time saw as the backwardness of Southern womanhood. She came out in favor of workers’ rights, suffrage and racial equality. “Keller,” writes Nielsen, “had become a displaced Southerner.”
Despite her growing estrangement both with her family and her Southern identity, writes Nielsen, Keller was often considered distinctly Southern by observers in the North. She capitalized on that perception to raise awareness of civil rights and the challenges of disabled African-Americans, forged ties with the NAACP, and used her notoriety to raise awareness of apartheid in South Africa, though she never publicly criticized the system.
“While claiming her Southern ties fondly,” Nielsen notes, “Keller tended to do so only by linking them with accompanying statements of shame and disavowal.” Keller may have spent much of her life trying to disconnect herself from her Southern heritage, but the very combination of her Southernness and her personal experiences as a disabled person whose physical limitations restricted her freedoms allowed her to identify even more keenly with African-Americans living under the South’s discriminatory racial code. As one of her day’s most famous Southerners, she was uniquely poised to point out—and challenge—that troubled racial heritage.