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Helen Keller Statue Unveiled

October 9, 2009
Helen Keller satue at U.S. Capitol

Helen Keller statue at U.S. Capitol

On Wednesday, a new bronze statue was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall before a crowd of Congress members, Alabama politicians and representatives of the American Foundation for the Blind. The statue depicts seven-year-old Alabama native Helen Keller at the pivotal moment at the water well in which she recognized the ability of words to convey meaning. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke at the ceremony, stating, “Helen Keller, in this statue in the Capitol, will always remind us that people must be respected for what they can do, rather than judged for what they cannot.”

Helen Keller (1880-1968) lost both her sight and hearing when only nineteen months old and yet overcame such hardships through rigorous education and practice with her teacher Anne Sullivan, eventually receiving a college education at Radcliffe and writing twelve books. The statue unveiled earlier this week was undoubtedly meant by its patron, her home state of Alabama, as a symbol of hope for those with disabilities facing similar challenges. And yet, as is typical of most reiterations of Keller’s life, the statue and those who financed it failed to recognize in image or words the manner in which Keller went on to influence others. While Pelosi’s speech vaguely referenced Keller’s interest in equality, no serious attention was drawn to the fact that Keller, as an adult, was a progressive activist, self-identifying as a pacifist during World War I, becoming a member of the Socialist Party in 1909 and perpetually advocating internationally for women’s suffrage and workers’ rights. As Keller scholar and author of The Radical Lives of Helen Keller Kim Nielsen stated on Thursday in her appearance on Democracy Now, “Keller lived to be eighty-eight years old and we remember her primarily right now as a seven year old…We tend as a culture to infantilize people with disabilities, and Keller was always really frustrated that people only wanted to hear about her life as someone with a disability.”

While the statue, in and of itself, fails to address the work she did as an adult on the behalf of the working class, perhaps its presence in the National Statuary Hall will provoke visitors of the Capitol to do their own research. And maybe someday a prominently positioned artwork will commemorate the woman who wrote such texts as Out of the Dark: Essays, Lectures and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision, for it is through reading works such as these that we come to remember her selflessness. She continually put the troubles of others before her own, writing compassionately in the above title’s opening essay “The Hand of the World”:

“My darkness had been filled with the light of intelligence, and, behold, the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness!”

  1. November 5, 2009 3:21 pm

    Beautiful writing Roxanne. Succinct and powerful. Keller was a real visionary wasn’t she? We should all be so inclined to use every ounce of what we have to better ourselves and the world around us. I’ve been involved in Peace activism for a while but didn’t know about Keller’s interest in that.

    • Roxanne Samer permalink*
      November 6, 2009 9:36 am

      Yes, and most people don’t know about this important side to her life. I think it’s great that there are scholars such as Nielsen making a point to tell this story, and I hoped to have done my part by passing the news on to GAB readers!

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