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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Today in BAM History: Helen Keller lecture on “The Heart and the Hand” (1913)

by Louie Fleck

When we think about Helen Keller (June 27, 1880–June 1, 1968), what do we know?

We all know that Helen Keller was deaf and blind, and that she overcame these challenges and became an inspiration to many. And that she was an author, lecturer, and advocate for people with disabilities.

Did you know that Helen Keller was a suffragist, pacifist, radical socialist, and a birth control supporter?

Did you know that Helen Keller gave a lecture with Anne E. Sullivan, her noted teacher, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 19, 1913?

What was the world like in 1913?

It was a year before the upheaval and destruction of the First World War. Grand Central Terminal opened in New York City. The Panama Canal was completed. Coal mine explosions and accidents killed over 3000 workers. Stainless steel and the modern elastic bra were invented. The National Woman's Party was formed. There was the largest march yet on Washington for Women's Suffrage. The temperance movement picked up steam. Women won the right to vote in Norway. Garment workers' strikes in Boston and New York brought pay raises and reduced hours.

Helen Keller was fearless in expressing her commentaries and opinions. Here is an excerpt from one of her 1916 anti-war speeches:
“The future of the world rests in the hands of America. The future of America rests on the backs of 80,000,000 working men and women and their children. We are facing a grave crisis in our national life. The few who profit from the labor of the masses want to organize the workers into an army which will protect the interests of the capitalists. You are urged to add to the heavy burdens you already bear the burden of a larger army and many additional warships. It is in your power to refuse to carry the artillery and the dreadnoughts and to shake off some of the burdens, too, such as limousines, steam yachts and country estates. You do not need to make a great noise about it. With the silence and the dignity of creators you can end wars and the system of selfishness and exploitation that causes wars. All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms.

“Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the United States. It is planning to protect the capital of American speculators and investors in Mexico, South America, China and the Philippine Islands. Incidentally this preparation will benefit the manufacturers of munitions and war machines.
“We are not free unless the men who frame and execute the laws represent the interests of the lives of the people and no other interest. The ballot does not make a free man out of a wage slave. There has never existed a truly free and democratic nation in the world. From time immemorial men have followed with blind loyalty the strong men who had the power of money and of armies. Even while battlefields were piled high with their own dead they have tilled the lands of the rulers and have been robbed of the fruits of their labor. They have built palaces and pyramids, temples and cathedrals that held no real shrine of liberty.”

Hard to believe Keller spoke these words nearly 100 years ago!

And what about her ties to BAM? We recently found out that some point in the early 1920s, she also appeared as part of an extremely successful fundraising event for the blind. The two sold-out evenings included the Irish musical comedy, All Around Kerry, performed by the Blind Players.

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