“They ask only opportunity”: Helen Keller and Those Who Will Not See

The evolution of my fully understanding formal education began when I was very young and learning moment by moment at the feet of my mother, who taught my sister and me to play canasta (a complicated two-deck card game related to rummy) and love Dr. Seuss well before we started first grade.

Of course, I thought I knew something about school after 16.5 years that culminated in my undergraduate degree, and then I began to teach. That led to another delusion about my understanding formal schooling—until I became a father.

By third grade, my daughter was teaching me lessons about school I had only come to understand at the edges. One of those lessons involved her class reading The Miracle Worker in their textbook. I watched my daughter being taught the passive radical myth (which I have connected with Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Jesus; and also explored in the ways Pat Tillman’s life and death have been manipulated)—Keller reduced to a caricature of simplistic moral lessons aimed at feeding children in the U.S. the myths that deform (see Paulo Freire).

Helen Keller, however, was someone quite different—a true radical in thought and action. Below is an updated reposting of a blog from June 29, 2012, exploring the power in Keller’s voice, one marginalized, ignored, silenced.

Helen Keller could not attend the 1906 meeting of Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind. In a letter, Keller implored Mark Twain to speak on her behalf: “But, superfluous as all other appeals must seem after you and Mr. Choate have spoken, nevertheless, as I am a woman, I cannot be silent, and I ask you to read this letter, knowing that it will be lifted to eloquence by your kindly voice.”

In these words echo Keller’s ironic awareness of the invisibility of women who are silenced.

About the need for advocacy for the blind, Keller wrote in part:

To know what the blind man needs, you who can see must imagine what it would be not to see, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what blindness means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction….The seeing man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident blinds him. The day is blotted out. Night envelops all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a man with ambitions and capabilities.

It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled that we are working to improve the condition of the adult blind. You cannot bring back the light of the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the sightless along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their eyes you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in the darkness [emphasis added]. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.

This message of empathy and advocacy speaks beyond the turn of the twentieth century and beyond the challenges confronting the blind. In the twenty-first century, Americans are not fully human unless they are workers first. Without work, Americans struggle to have adequate and affordable health care, to feel basic dignity or security.

In the twenty-first century, people and children increasingly trapped in poverty are the targets of derision and marginalization as this country has maintained a war on the poor and not on poverty.

Those Who Will Not See: The Privileged

Let’s imagine, now, Keller’s words rewritten to address the advocacy needed for adults and children trapped in poverty:

To know what the poor person needs, you who are privileged must imagine what it would be not to privileged, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what poverty means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction….The privileged man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident impoverishes him. The day is blotted out. Night envelops all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a man with ambitions and capabilities.

It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled that we are working to improve the condition of people trapped in poverty. You cannot bring back the light of the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the poor along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their opportunity you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in the darkness. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.

The U.S. is not a land of opportunity, but a land of privilege begetting privilege at the expense of the impoverished and the swelling working class and working poor. The privileged berate public institutions, such as universal public education, and the people who dedicate their lives to public service, such as the teachers in those schools.

The privileged rail against universal health care and day care because they were raised with both and maintain both regardless of their behavior.

The corporate consumer culture has tied all basic elements of human dignity—an income, retirement, health care, security—to employment rendering a hard day’s labor essentially a kind of twentieth-century wage-slavery.

American workers are shackled to their status as workers, a condition that benefits mostly the owners, the bosses, the privileged.

If American workers were provided the basic dignities of being human independent of their work, those workers would have autonomy—something historically afforded by unions and tenure (the anathemas of corporate consumerism)—they would have voice, they would have the authentic freedom and choice flippantly championed by the privileged.

Keller’s impassioned plea about the need for empathy at the foundation of advocacy speaks to the same empathy needed against the arrogance of privilege that has corrupted the American character and the American Dream.

“Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered. I myself would say that it had merely been detected,” mused Oscar Wilde.

America remains a shining possibility, but it is destined to remain only a possibility as long as those with power continue to lead but refuse to see that the true character of a country’s people is revealed each day among that country’s workers and the conditions of their labor.

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2 thoughts on ““They ask only opportunity”: Helen Keller and Those Who Will Not See

  1. Pingback: “They ask only opportunity”: Helen Keller and Those Who Will Not See – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. Pingback: Shiny Happy People: NPR, “Grit,” and “Myths that Deform” pt. 2 | the becoming radical

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