THE HAND OF THE WORLD: Helen Keller on Social Blindness

[From Out of the Dark: Essays, Letters, and Addresses on Physical and Social Vision (1913). This text has been lightly edited for apparent scanning errors and hyperlinked by me]

Out of the Dark by Helen Keller 1st edition gold coverAs I write this, I am sitting in a pleasant house, in a sunny, wide-windowed study filled with plants and flowers. Here I sit, warmly clad, secure against want, sure that what my welfare requires the world will give. Through these generous surroundings I feel the touch of a hand, invisible but potent, all-sustaining — the hand that wove my garments, the hand that stretched the roof over my head, the hand which printed the pages that I read.

What is that hand which shelters me? In vain the winds buffet my house and hurl the biting cold against my windows: that hand still keeps me warm. What is it that I may lean upon it at every step I take in the dark, and it fails me not? I give wondering praise to the beneficent hand that ministers to my joy and comfort, that toils for the daily bread of all. I would gratefully acknowledge my debt to its capability and kindness. I pray that some hearts may heed my words about the hand of the world, that they may believe in the coming of that commonwealth in which the gyves shall be struck from the wrist of Labour, and the pulse of Production shall be strong with joy.

All our earthly well-being hangs upon the living hand of the world. Society is founded upon it. Its lifebeats throb in our institutions. Every industry, every process is wrought by a hand, or by a superhand — a machine whose mighty arm and cunning fingers the human hand invents and wields. The hand embodies its skill, projects, and multiplies itself in wondrous tools, and with them it spins and weaves, ploughs and reaps, converts clay into walls, and roofs our habitations with trees of the forest. It compels Titans of steel to heave incredible burdens, and commands the service of nimble lackeys which neither groan nor become exhausted. Communication between mind and mind, between writer and reader, is made possible by marvelous extensions of the might of the hand, by elaborate reduplications of the many-motioned fingers. I have touched one of those great printing-presses in which a river of paper flows over the types, is cut, folded, and piled with swift precision. Between my thoughts and the words which you read on this page a thousand hands have intervened; a hundred shafts of steel have rocked to and fro, to and fro, in industrious rhythm.

The hand of the world! Think how it sends forth the waters where it will, to form canals between the seas, and binds the same seas with thought incorporate in arms of stone! What is the telegraph cable but the quick hand of the world extended between the nations, now menacing, now clasped in brotherhood? What are our ships and railways but the feet of man made swift and strong by his hands? The hand captures the winds, the sun, and the lightnings, and despatches them upon errands of commerce. Before its irresistible blows mountains are beaten small as dust. Huge derricks—prehensile power magnified in digits of steel — rear factories and palaces, lay stone upon stone in our stately monuments, and raise cathedral spires.

On the hand of the world are visible the records of biology, of history, of all human existence since the day of the “first thumb that caught the trick of thought.” Every hand wears a birth-seal. By the lines of the thumb each of us can be identified from infancy to age. So by the marks on the hand of the world its unmistakable personality is revealed. Through suffering and prosperity, through periods of retrograde -and progress, the hand keeps its identity. Even now, when the ceaseless ply of the world-shuttles is so clamorous and confused, when the labour of the individual is lost in the complexities of production, the old human hand, the symbol of the race, may still be discerned, blurred by the speed of its movements, but master and guide of all that whirring loom.

Study the hand, and you shall find in it the true picture of man, the story of human growth, the measure of the world’s greatness and weakness. Its courage, its steadfastness, its pertinacity make all the welfare of the human race. Upon the trustworthiness of strong, toil-hardened hands rests the life of each and all. Every day thousands of people enter the railway train and trust their lives to the hand that grasps the throttle of the locomotive. Such responsibility kindles the imagination! But more profound is the thought that the destiny and the daily life of mankind depend upon countless obscure hands that are never lifted up in any dramatic gesture to remind the world of their existence. In Sartor Resartus Carlyle expresses our obligation to the uncelebrated hands of the worker:

 

 

“Venerable to me is the hard Hand; crooked and coarse; wherein notwithstanding lies a cunning virtue, indefeasibly royal, as of the Sceptre of this Planet. . . . Hardly entreated Brother! For us was thy back so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed: thou wert our Conscript, on whom the lot fell, and fighting our battles wert so marred. For in thee, too, lay a god-created Form, but it was not to be unfolded; encrusted must it stand with the thick adhesions and defacements of Labour: and thy body, like thy soul, was not to know freedom.”

But wherefore these deformities and defacements? Wherefore this bondage that cramps the soul? A million tool-hands are at our service, tireless and efficient, having neither heart nor nerve. Why do they not lift the burden from those bowed shoulders? Can it be that man is captive to his own machine, manacled to his own handiwork, like the convict chained to the prison-wall that he himself has built? Instruments multiply, they incorporate more and more of the intelligence of men; they not only perform coarse drudgery, but also imitate accurately many of the hand’s most difficult dexterities. Still the God-created Form is bowed. Innumerable souls are still denied their freedom. Still the fighter of our battles is maimed and defrauded.

Once I rejoiced when I heard of a new invention for the comfort of man. Taught by religion and a gentle home life, nourished with good books, I could not but believe that all men had access to the benefits of inventive genius. When I heard that locomotives had doubled in size and speed, I thought: “The food of the wheat-fields will come cheaper to the poor of the cities now/’ and I was glad. But flour costs more to-day than when I read of those great new engines. Why do not improved methods of milling and transportation improve the dinner of the poor? I supposed that in our civilization all advances benefited every man. I imagined that every worthy endeavour brought a sure reward. I had felt in my life the touch only of hands that uphold the weak, hands that are all eye and ear, charged with helpful intelligence. I believed that people made their own conditions, and that, if the conditions were not always of the best, they were at least tolerable, just as my infirmity was tolerable.

As the years went by and I read more widely, I learned that the miseries and failures of the poor are not always due to their own faults, that multitudes of men, for some strange reason, fail to share in the much-talked-of progress of the world. I shall never forget the pain and amazement which I felt when I came to examine the statistics of blindness, its causes, and its connection with other calamities that befall thousands of my fellow-men. I learned how workmen are stricken by the machine hands that they are operating. It became clear to me that the labour-saving machine does not save the labourer. It saves expense and makes profits for the owner of the machine. The worker has no share in the increased production due to improved methods; and, what is worse, as the eagle was killed by the arrow winged with his own feather, so the hand of the world is wounded by its own skill. The multipotent machine displaces the very hand that created it. The productivity of the machine seems to be valued above the human hand; for the machine is often left without proper safeguards, and so hurts the very life it was intended to serve.

Step by step my investigation of blindness led me into the industrial world. And what a world it is! How different from the world of my beliefs! I must face unflinchingly a world of facts — a world of misery and degradation, of blindness, crookedness, and sin, a world struggling against the elements, against the unknown, against itself. How reconcile this world of fact with the bright world of my imagining? My darkness had been filled with the light of intelligence, and, behold, the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness! At first I was most unhappy; but deeper study restored my confidence. By learning the sufferings and burdens of men, I became aware as never before of the life-power that has survived the forces of darkness, the power which, though never completely victorious, is continuously conquering. The very fact that we are still here carrying on the contest against the hosts of annihilation proves that on the whole the battle has gone for humanity. The world’s great heart has proved equal to the prodigious undertaking which God set it. Rebuffed, but always persevering; self-reproached, but ever regaining faith; undaunted, tenacious, the heart of man labours toward immeasurably distant goals. Discouraged not by difficulties without, or the anguish of ages within, the heart listens to a secret voice that whispers: “Be not dismayed; in the future lies the Promised Land. ”

When I think of all the wonders that the hand of man has wrought, I rejoice, and am lifted up. It seems the image and agent of the Hand that upholds us all. We are its creatures, its triumphs, remade by it in the ages since the birth of the race. Nothing on earth is so thrilling, so terrifying, as the power of our own hands to keep us or mar us. All that man does is the hand alive, the hand manifest, creating and destroying, itself the instrument of order and demolition. It moves a stone, and the universe undergoes a readjustment. It breaks a clod, and new beauty bursts forth in fruits and flowers, and the sea of fertility flows over the desert.

With our hands we raise each other to the heights of knowledge and achievement, and with the same hands we plunge each other into the pit. I have stood beside a gun which they told me could in a few minutes destroy a town and all the people in it. When. I learned how much the gun cost, I thought: “Enough labour is wasted on that gun to build a town full of clean streets and wholesome dwellings !” Misguided hands that destroy their own handiwork and deface the image of God! Wonderful hands that wound and can bind up, that make sore and can heal, suffering all injuries, yet triumphant in measureless enterprise! What on earth is like unto the hands in their possibilities of good and evil? So much creative power has God deputed to us that we can fashion human beings round about with strong sinews and noble limbs, or we can shrivel them up, grind living hearts and living hands in the mills of penury. This power gives me confidence. But because it is often misdirected, my confidence is mingled with discontent.

“Why is it,” I asked, and turned to the literature of our day for an answer, “why is it that so many workers live in unspeakable misery?” With their hands they have builded great cities and they cannot be sure of a roof over their heads. With their hands they have opened mines and dragged forth with the strength of their bodies the buried sunshine of dead forests, and they are cold. They have gone down into the bowels of the earth for diamonds and gold, and they haggle for a loaf of bread. With their hands they erect temple and palace, and their habitation is a crowded room in a tenement. They plough and sow and fill our hands with flowers while their own hands are full of husks.

In our mills, factories, and mines, human hands are herded together to dig, to spin, and to feed the machines that they have made, and the product of the machine is not theirs. Day after day naked hands, without safeguard, without respite, must guide the machines under dangerous and unclean conditions. Day after day they must keep firm hold of the little that they grasp of life, until they are hardened, brutalized. Still the portent of idle hands grows apace, and the hand-to-hand grapple waxes more fierce. O pitiful blindness! O folly that men should allow such contradictions — contradictions that violate not only the higher justice but the plainest common sense. How do the hands that have achieved the Mauretania become so impotent that they cannot save themselves from drowning? How do our hands that have stretched railways and telegraphs round the world become so shortened that they cannot redeem themselves?

Why is it that willing hands are denied the prerogative of Labour, that the hand of man is against man? At the bidding of a single hand thousands rush to produce, or hang idle. Amazing that hands which produce nothing should be exalted and jewelled with authority! In yonder town the textile mills are idle, and the people want shoes. Fifty miles away, in another town, the shoe factories are silent, and the people want clothes. Between these two arrested forces of production is that record of profits and losses called the Market. The buyers of clothes and shoes in the market are the workers themselves; but they cannot buy what their hands have made. Is it not unjust that the hands of the world are not subject to the will of the workers, but are driven by the blind force of Necessity to obey the will of the few? And who are these few? They are themselves the slaves of the Market and the victims of Necessity.

Driven by the very maladjustments that wound it, and enabled by its proved capacity for readjustment and harmony, society must move onward to a state in which every hand shall work and reap the fruits of its own endeavour, no less, no more. This is the third world which I have discovered. From a world of dreams I was plunged into a world of fact, and thence I have emerged into a society which is still a dream, but rooted in the actual. The commonwealth of the future is growing surely out of the state in which we now live. There will be strife, but no aimless, self-defeating strife. There will be competition, but no soul-destroying, hand-crippling competition. There will be only honest emulation in cooperative effort. There will be example to instruct, companionship to cheer, and to lighten burdens. Each hand will do its part in the provision of food, clothing, shelter, and the other great needs of man, so that if poverty comes all will bear it alike, and if prosperity shines all will rejoice in its warmth.

There have been such periods in the history of man. Human nature has proved itself capable of equal cooperation. But the early communist societies of which history tells us were primitive in their methods of production — half civilized, as we say who dare call our present modes of life civilization! The coming age will be complex, and will relinquish nothing useful in the methods which it has learned in long struggles through tyrannies and fierce rivalries of possession. To the hand of the world belongs the best, the noblest, the most stupendous task, the subjection of all the forces of nature to the mind of man, the subjection of physical strength to the might of the spirit. We are still far from this loftiest of triumphs of the hand. Its forces are still to be disciplined and organized. The limbs of the world must first be restored. In order that no limb may suffer, and that none may keep the others in bondage, the will of the many must become self-conscious and intelligently united. Then the hand — the living power of man, the hewer of the world — will be laid with undisputed sway upon the machine with which it has so long been confounded. There will be abundance for all, and no hands will cry out any more against the arm of the mighty. The hand of the world will then have achieved what it now obscurely symbolizes — the uplifting and regeneration of the race, all that is highest, all that is creative, in man.

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Helen & Friends @ Zuccotti Park: Occupy Wall Street 5-year anniversary

“ASK ME WHAT I THINK OF CAPITALISM” That was the sign I made and carried with me to Occupy Wall Street Sunday. We finally made it to Zuccotti Park, after the fact from the standpoint of many who think the movement of the physical place is dead. But it was exhilarating for me and my companions nonetheless.

Besides me and my sign there was:

1 Igor GuideDog (Mr. Popularity)

2 Caroline (blind friend with cane)

3 David (filmmaker with old school Lomo Kino camera that took 30 seconds of footage and 10 minutes to reload

4 Liam (latecomer/hanger on)

 

I’d agonized over the signs – regarding both form and content:

1 How to incorporate Helen’s fun Vaudeville Q & A

2 How to incorporate my show (The Star of Happiness: Helen Keller on Vaudeville?!)

3 How to engage with an unseen public

4 How to engage with other blind people–actually I’m lying this was not a concern. I just wanted to say to people “hey you wanna feel my sign”! this proved to be fun.

5 How to get the words on the poster without busting out the old spray paints and upsetting domestic odor 6 How to make letters legible to sighted people when you can’t see

On the night before our outing, time was dwindling and I’d not made the stencils I had considered. I finally hit upon using Velcro tape to make letters but let me tell you this is not so easy as it sounds especially when you can’t see what you’re doing. At about midnight, after more than one tall boy, I began to despair that I was making a sign illegible to all. I almost stopped right there but then decided that a sign that no one could read also had its charm.

I did poop out after that first sign, but it turned out to be just the right thing and just enough of a burden. Not sure how I thought I’d carry six signs in one hand and Igor in the other even with a ride from Accessalimo on one end of the journey and help from friends on the other.

“ASK ME WHAT I THINK OF CAPITALISM” seems suggestive rather than provocative, but even so the lady at the Dunkin’ Do– –No you didn’t?! –We needed coffee and turned to The Man. Sorry. –nuts was indeed provoked she said to David (who was holding my sign for a moment, “who’s going to pay taxes if nobody has a job?” David answered diplomatically that indeed he does have a job and pointed me out as being the owner and author of the offending sign. I was only vaguely aware of this exchange and could not defend my sign since I was busy fending off passes on my German Shepherd by German tourists!

Basically, we did not even get coffee down our gullets when the games began and they did not stop till we left the park. Between the dog and the sign there was really not a moments rest – Igor gave out many Guide Dog FAQs (jesus I wish he had hands) and I talked about Helen and the sign and occasionally got to answer the question – with a big Star of Happiness smile – “I think it has outgrown its usefulness.”

People wanted pictures of me and my sign, people wanted interviews with me and my sign, people wanted words of wisdom from me (it’s that poet prophet thing, I tell yuh–my people have cornered the market!), and I happily got to say many times over, “you wanna feel my sign?!”

We were there to film some footage for a newsreel promo for The Star of Happiness, and we hopefully got some, but since David was using this little old school wind up camera, which may or may not have taken a single decent frame – we won’t know till the film is developed what we got, if anything. The irony is that I neglected to get him to take even a single pic with my iPhone though I grace the iPhones of many strangers and poor David spent much of his time figuring out how to use their cameras so that they could have their picture taken with us!

Ok, fine, so half the people wanting pictures with us were from some kind of disabled action committee (God I hope our footage turns out!) And most of the other half were just plain lame, but still I felt like some kind of crazy pied piper singing out Helen’s song of socialism!

It was fun talking to people about Helen’s politics because it allowed me to hide behind her strong convictions–at least partly. Admittedly many people asked me if I too were a socialist, and finally, by the twentieth time or so, I formulated an answer that did not get people riled up. I had been saying that I’m not really political, but they gave me shit for this and rightly so I suppose. I live in a society that is to a certain extent civilized, meaning, I think, that we are circumscribed by laws that inhibit and punish our selfish and insatiable parts, and so I cannot help being political. What I meant and finally managed to articulate, is that I’m not that interested in current events. I can’t help but take the long view – studied the classics as an undergrad, got my PhD in early modern lit, and just recently started reading books written in the twentieth century.

That said, I do feel a socialist at heart. I feel kindred with Helen’s politics though I myself am not an activist. I tried to tell someone who asked me about policy that I’m an idea woman not a policy woman, but he wouldn’t except that. Well, too bad because it’s true. I think in terms of historical and psychological trends and cannot wrap my brains around the details of changing today’s policy. Rather I found myself clutching at one large thread that runs through Helen’s critique of capitalism: greed. Greed and a culture, which not only allows for but encourages that greed to get totally out of hand. I’m not exactly talking about specific people here – I don’t believe that there are obvious distinctions between the selfish and the unselfish, the greedy and the not greedy. I think these things exist on a continuum, like most everything else I can think of. The fact is that humans will be greedy, shit I had a dog that could be greedy. We all want all we can have, right? Maybe not all the time–hopefully not all the time, but sometimes, right? Probably we have all felt that insatiability that leads to a loss of control, and an indifferent attitude regarding the suffering our bottomless gullets, pockets, loins, etc. might be creating in the lives of others.

What I hit upon in my interviews and discussions yesterday was the thought that the real change that OWS can have, and I think already has had, is to make greediness just a little more out of fashion, which, to those who are greedy for change, may sound trifling but to me, sounds like the kind of change that lays the groundwork for a paradigm shift!

So I guess my answer to the question “What do you think of capitalism?” is tamer than Helen’s, but of course I am not a card-carrying socialist and I have lived well past the dream of her Soviet Utopia, and so there is some irony in my answering with her “I think it has outgrown its usefulness. Rather I think if asked at this moment what I think of capitalism, I should answer the way I would about my own out of control tendencies, “Maybe a little more structure and restraint are in order?!”

 

[First published on November 11, 2011, when hopes were high and my dear Igor GuideDog was still among the living. To learn more about Igor GuideDog and the guide dog fund I set up in his honor, CLICK HERE]

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Helen Keller’s Vaudeville Q & A

a full-length black & white photograph of Helen Keller standing leaning against a tree. She is in a thick woods; the background is dense with limbs and trunks, and her skirts are partially obscured by growth in the foreground. She is facing right with her cheek pressed against the trunk, her right hand rests against it at chest level; her position gives the appearance that she is listening to the tree. She is in a white, long-sleeved dress and her hair is pulled back into a bun. 1907.

 

What is Miss Keller’s age?

There is no age on the vaudeville stage.

 

Does Miss Keller think of marriage?

Yes. Are you proposing to me?

 

Does talking tire you?

Did you ever hear of a woman who tired of talking?

 

Do you close your eyes when you sleep?

I guess I do, but I never stayed awake to see.

 

What do you think of President Harding?

I have a fellow feeling for him. He seems as blind as I am.

 

Who is your favorite hero in real life?

Eugene V. Debs. He dared to do what other men were afraid to do.

 

What do you think of the Ku Klux Klan?

I like them about as much as I do a hornet’s nest.

 

What do you think of Harvard College’s discrimination against the Jews?

I think when any institution of learning applies any test other than scholarship, it has ceased to be a public service institution. Harvard, in discriminating against the Jew and the Negro on grounds other than intellectual qualifications, has proved unworthy of its traditions and covered itself with shame.

 

Can you enjoy trees?

Yes, they speak to me of the silent works of God.

 

Do you think women should go into politics?

Yes, if they want to.

 

Do you think women should hold office?

Yes, if they can get enough of their fellow citizens to vote for them.

 

Who are the three greatest men of our time?

Lenin, Edison, and Charlie Chaplin.

 

What do you think of Soviet Russia?

Soviet Russia is the first organized attempt of the workers to establish an order of society in which human life and happiness shall be of first importance, and not the conservation of property for a privileged class.

 

Who are your best pals?

Books.

 

What is your definition of a reformer?

One who tries to abolish everything his neighbor enjoys.

 

What is your conception of light?

It is like thought in the mind, a bright, amazing thing.

 

What do you think of capitalism?

I think it has outlived its usefulness.

 

What do you think of the League of Nations?

It looks like a league of bandits to me.

 

What did America gain by the war?

The “American Legion” and a bunch of other troubles.

 

Do you believe with Arthur Conan Doyle that spiritualism is the cure for the world’s troubles?

No. I think the world’s troubles are caused chiefly by wrong economic conditions, and the only cure for them is social reorganization.

 

>>>>

 

quoted from Dorothy Herrmann’s biography Helen Keller: A Life, which assures us that “Helen’s replies were not as spontaneous as they appeared. Some months before, she and Annie had compiled a seventeen-page list of questions that she might possibly be asked, and they had rehearsed the answers.” She tells us:

 

“Other topics included whether America had been true to her ideals (‘I am afraid to answer that; the Ku Klux Klan might give me a ducking’), her opinion of ex-president Wilson (‘I think he is the greatest individual disappointment the world has ever known’), her idea of unhappiness (‘Having nothing to do’), and could she really perceive colors (‘Sometimes I feel blue and sometimes I see red’).”

 

>>>

 

For Helen’s thoughts on performing on vaudeville (1920-24) see The Play World.

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The Play World: Helen Keller Writes About Vaudeville

[“The Play World” is Chapter 13 of Midstream: My Later Life, 1929, in which Keller describes her experience of vaudeville and the circumstances that led her to it. I lightly edited and hyperlinked it from a scan of the original.]

Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920. Helen is seated before a table, facing left. Behind her is a row of many robes and gowns. On the table appears to be makeup, and her left hand, resting on the edge of the table holds a brush. Her right hand is holding a powder puff to her right cheek. Her head is tossed back slightly and she is smiling broadly as though enjoying playing to the camera.
Helen Keller in her dressing room, 1920

THE picture was not a financial success. My sense of pride mutinies against my confession; but we are the kind of people who come out of an enterprise poorer than we went into it, and I am sorry to say, this condition is not always confined to ourselves.

 

We returned to our home in Forest Hills and for two years lived quietly. But we were faced with the necessity of earning more money. The funds my friends had provided for my support would cease with my death, and if I died before my teacher, she would be left almost destitute. The income I had I could live on, but I could not save anything.

 

In the winter of 1920 we went into vaudeville and remained until the spring of 1924. That does not mean that we worked continually during all four years. We appeared for short periods in and around New York, in New England, and in Canada. In 1921 and 1922 we went from coast to coast on the Orpheum Circuit.

 

It had always been said that we went into public life only to attract attention, and I had letters from friends in Europe remonstrating with me about ”the deplorable theatrical exhibition” into which I had allowed myself to be dragged. Now the truth is, I went of my own free will and persuaded my teacher to go with me. Vaudeville offered us better pay than either literary work or lecturing. Besides, the work was easier in an essential respect-we usually stayed in one place a week, instead of having to travel constantly from town to town and speak so soon after our arrival that we had no time for rest or preparation. We were on the stage only twenty minutes in the afternoon and evening, and the rules of the theatre usually protected us against the friendly invasion of the crowds who used to swarm around to shake hands with us at the lectures.

In the nature of things a lecture tour exposes one to many unpleasant experiences. Our lecture contract required that we collect the money before we went on the platform, but that was seldom possible and we disliked to imply distrust by demanding payment. In Seattle we gave two lectures to appreciative Audiences, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening. The local manager told us he would not be able to pay us our share, which was a thousand dollars, until after the evening performance. He did not appear in the theatre after the evening lecture, and we had no way of getting our money from him. Our manager was not interested in a lawsuit so far away, and we were obliged to pay him a percentage whether we were paid or not; so he suffered no loss on our account.

This happened many times-in Dunkirk, New York; Meadville, Pennsylvania; Ashtabula, Ohio; and San Diego and Santa Rosa, California. In no case was the town responsible; it was the fault of the local manager. Once when we did demand payment and refused to appear when it was not made, the audience became indignant, and the next morning the newspapers came out with a great headline, ”Helen Keller refused to speak unless she held the money in her hand.” We decided never to put ourselves in that position again. Once when we spoke at Allerton, Iowa, a crowd came to hear us, and our share of the proceeds-we were to go fifty-fifty with the manager-was over seven hundred dollars. It was amusing to see how reluctant the men in charge were to pay it. In Vancouver we had so much larger audience than the local manager expected that he paid us twice as much as the contract called for.

My teacher was not happy in vaudeville. She could never get used to the rush, glare, and noise of the theatre; but I enjoyed it keenly. At first it seemed odd to find ourselves on the same ”bill” with acrobats, monkeys, horses, dogs, and parrots; but our little act was dignified and people seemed to like it.

I found the world of vaudeville much more amusing than the world I had always lived in, and I liked it. I liked to feel the warm tide of human life pulsing round and round me. I liked to weep at its sorrows, to be annoyed at its foibles, to laugh at its absurdities, to be set athrill by its flashes of unexpected goodness and courage. I enjoyed watching the actors in the workshop of faces and costumes. If I should relate ”the strength and riches of their state”-the powder, the patches and masks, the ribbons, jewels, and livery[]Abraham Cowley]; and if I should describe the charming bits of acts which were performed for me off stage I should be more voluminous than Who’s Who in America. I must be content to say I was often admitted to the dressing rooms of the other actors, and that many of them let me feel their costumes and even went through their acts for me. The thought often occurred to me that the parts the actors played, was their real life, and all the rest was make-believe. I still think so, and hope it is true, for the sake of many to whom fate is unkind in the real world.

I can conceive that in time the spectacle might have grown stale. I might have come to hear the personal confessions of my fellow actors without emotion, and to regard the details of wild parties and excursions with impatience. But I shall always be glad I went into vaudeville, not only for the excitement of it, but also for the opportunities it gave me to study life.

Some of the theatres where we went were beautiful, and most of them comfortable. Mr. Albee, who is at the head of the organization,   is a man of singular   ability   and   kindness   of   heart,   and he concerns himself earnestly with everything that promotes the welfare of the actors and the efficiency of their work. Very few of them are permitted to come into his presence, but his good will radiates through his staff from one end of the system to the other. We found most of our managers courteous, and some of them were beloved. I shall always be grateful to my personal manager, Mr. Harry Weber, who never failed us in service and loyalty. Mr. Albee is interested not only in the functioning of his mammoth machine, but also in the human cogs and wheels that make it go. Not one of these small ceaselessly moving parts gets out of order but he knows it, and makes every effort to repair it, whatever the cause or the cost. He has kept individuals in shows who are blind or deaf or crippled, but whose handicap is cleverly concealed from the public. An important branch   of   his   humanitarian   work   is the National Vaudeville Association [National Vaudeville Artists], which has ten thousand members. Each membership carries with it a paid-up insurance policy of a thousand dollars, and in Cases of illness, idleness, or other misfortune, everyone is sure to receive financial aid, no matter in what Part of the world he may be. The Association, maintains a sanitarium for tubercular members, and there are health camps in California, Arizona, Colorado and other places.

The audiences always made us feel their interest and friendliness. Sometimes many of them were foreigners, and could not understand what we said, but their applause and sympathy were gratifying. After my teacher had explained how I was taught, I made my entrance and gave a brief talk, at the end of which the audience was allowed to ask questions. Some of them were very funny. Can you tell the time of day without a watch? Have you ever thought of getting married? Have you ever used a Ouija board? Do you think business is looking up? Am I going on a trip? Why has a cow two stomachs? How much is too many? Do you believe in ghosts? Do you think it is a blessing to be poor? Do you dream? There were hundreds of them.

I am always intensely conscious of my audience. Before I say a word I feel its breath as it comes in little pulsations to my face. I sense its appreciation or indifference. I found vaudeville audiences especially easy to speak before. They were much more demonstrative than most others, and showed instantly when they were pleased. One of the queerest experiences I ever had was the first time I spoke from a pulpit. The audience seemed so quiet and the reading desk was so high I felt as if I were speaking to them over a wall. A similar experience came when I spoke over the radio. I felt as if I were speaking to ghosts. There were no life vibrations-no shuffling feet, no sound of applause, no odour of tobacco or cosmetics, only a blankness into which my words floated. I never had that bewildered feeling before a vaudeville audience.

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The Sea Spells, Helen Keller’s Favorite Books

“Books have been my most intimate companions,” wrote Helen Keller in a letter to a suitor in 1922.

There can be little doubt that Helen derived much pleasure from the solitary communion of reading. That much of this pleasure was escapist in the extreme, she freely admits, “More than at any other time, when I hold a beloved book in my hand my limitations fall from me, my spirit is free. Books are my compensation for the harms of fate. They give me a world for a lost world, and for mortals who have disappointed me they give me gods.”

Books supplied what Helen’s missing senses could not, but they also supplemented the world’s lack. Failure and frailty, greed and indifference could never be totally got over in this world, but in the world of books men and women could live the lives of heroes. Helen was by no means misanthropic, but neither was she a Pollyanna. She was a card-carrying Socialist and political activist. In 1913, she published a book of essays called Out of the Dark, which railed against capitalist greed and demanded social reformation. Her decidedly leftist outspokenness angered many people who saw her radical politics as abhorrent, and antithetical to their angelic ideal of her.

If her politics were radical, her literary tastes were perhaps less so, and yet…. And yet, there were so few books available to her. She did not have the luxury of electronic books or of searching vast databases. She necessarily relied heavily on others to tell her about new books and authors. Often she had to have them transcribed for her, a costly and time consuming effort. Sometimes the easiest, if least satisfactory, method was simply to have someone read a book to her by spelling into her hand. This meant she would not be able to refer back to it. Once read, it was lost. I can only wish she had more books at her disposal.

She writes in her second and less famous autobiography Midstream: My Later Life, that her most beloved book is the Bible:

“I cannot take space to name here all the books that have enriched my life, but there are a few that I cannot pass over. The one I have read most is the Bible. I have read and reread it until in many parts the pages have faded out – I mean, my fingers have rubbed off the dots, and I must supply whole verses from memory, especially the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Gospels. To the Bible I always go for confidence when waves of doubt rush over me and no voice is near to reassure me.”

Though The Bible is a singular case, she says something similar when she writes about Walt Whitman:

“He has been an inspiration to me in a very special way. I began to read his poetry years ago at a time when I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of isolation and self-doubt. It was when I read the Song of the Open Road that my spirit leaped up to meet him. For me his verses have the quality of exquisite physical sensations. They wave like flowers; they quiver like fountains, or rush on like mountain torrents. He sings unconquerable life. He is in the middle of the stream. He marches with the world’s thought, not against it.”

For Helen, the authorial voice of Whitman seems almost to take the place of a friend’s comforting voice, and her tribute apparently acknowledges Whitman as the inspiration for the title Midstream in which the quote may be found.

The degree to which she must have sometimes felt isolated is something I can only imagine, but still I completely relate to the compensatory pleasure she found in books. They offer worlds not ordinarily perceived by us. And more, they urge us to make analogies, which at their best serve to wash over the irreconcilable individuation of experience.

I will let her own beautiful words about Joseph Conrad (also found in Midstream) read us out:

“I did not really make his acquaintance until 1920 – I did not have any of his books in Braille until then. I cannot define the peculiar fascination he has for me, but he took possession of me at once. I had always loved books of the sea, and the days I have spent along the shore have been happy ones. I love the dunes and the sea weeds that drift and crawl up on the sands, the little waves that creep through shell and pebbles like fingers seeking to spell a message to me. We used to be friends when you were the beginning of a fish – do you remember? I love winds and storms and sailors, tropical dawns leaping out of the east, and billows that like mighty tusked mastodons crunch the land. It may be that I am especially alive to the spell of the sea because it is so much like darkness that is my element. The dark too, has its deep silent currents and dangerous reefs, its monsters, its creatures of beauty, its derelicts and ships. In the dark too, there is a star to steer by, and no matter how far I travel there are always before me vast oceans of experience that I have not yet explored.”

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Disability Pride Parades Matter

Disability Pride Parades celebrate difference, explode stigma and combat shame!

 

If you did not know that Disability Pride Month came to a close yesterday, you would be forgiven as, in NYC at least, it is only a year old. Mayor de Blasio declared July to be Disability Pride Month last year in honor of the 25th anniversary of the passing of the ADA. In a 2015 article by the NY Daily News, de Blasio was quoted as saying, “The Americans with Disabilities Act is one of the most important civil rights laws in history.”

And yet, although many improvements have been made in education, job opportunities and accessibility, disability seems not to be part of a larger celebration of diversity.

Literary and disability critic Lennard J. Davis puts it like this in his entry “Diversity” in the 2015 book Keywords in Disability Studies:

 

“Disability would seem naturally to fall under the rubric of diversity. Yet much of the time, when one sees lists of those included under the diversity banner, disability is either left off or comes along as the caboose on the diversity train. One could explain this negligence by saying that disability is just not that well known as an identity category; and that, when it is, disability will then take its rightful place along with more familiar identity markers such as race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and citizenship. One could say it will just take time and more activism and eventually people will be educated. Or one could say the problem is structural.”

 

Davis’ article explicitly takes up the latter thread, arguing that activism might not be enough to allow for disability to be fully embraced in the celebration of diversity.

A major reason for this is the perception that disability is something that, if possible, ought to be cured immediately, and avoided in future generations. Obviously this latter calls to mind some very unsavory issues of eugenics, but the point is that, for most people, celebrating diversity means celebrating a healthy body and mind, whose functions fall within the “normal” range–most people would not wish disability on anyone they loved.

Here again is Davis:

“The idea presented by diversity is that any identity is one we all could imagine having, and all identities are worthy of choosing. But the one identity one cannot (and, given the ethos of diversity, should not) choose is to be disabled.”

If diversity is a kind of empowerment, then disability would seem to represent its opposite. The very word “disability” suggests the powerlessness of limited possibilities for manipulating one’s world. As Davis puts it, “disability seems to be the poster student for disempowerment.”

Before leaving Davis, I’d like to say a little something about him. I first encountered his writings as a grad student studying 18th-century English literature, as that was his original field of interest also. From his work on the early English novel, he came to think about representations of disability in literature and began theorizing a field of study that he helped to create. The first Disability Studies program was founded at Syracuse University in 1994, and since then, many more have blossomed in the US, Canada, and beyond.

In 1996 Davis edited the first edition of The Disability Studies Reader, now in its 4th edition. That book, along with his Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body were my first encounters with an academic discipline that connected to my own work in fundamental ways.

Since my late undergrad days, I’d had the idea of studying blindness as both a metaphorical construct and a social phenomenon. Back then there seemed to be few people in the humanities working on disability as anything more than a literary trope., so I was pretty excited when I discovered Davis.

In the years since, I have left a traditional academic path and merely let that training inform and complicate my artistic/writerly work, and have only thought tangentially of my work as being related to the discipline of Disability Studies. Likewise, in the past ten or twenty years, the scope and, dare I say, diversity, of Disability Studies has blossomed. It is this blossoming as well as its difficulties that has in large degree reformed my work, though not my core artistic impulses.

I did not identify with a disabled community until recently–I barely even thought of myself as part of a blind community. A simple explanation for this is that I grew up as a visually impaired person who lived in a sighted world and, for many years, shame was a determining aspect of my sense of self. I launched out of being a visually impaired person (with no visual markers) into looking like a blind person when I was paired up with my first guide dog, Millennium. Even though I was visually impaired and probably could have done fine with a blind person cane, I refused that stigma, thinking people would treat me too differently. As it turned out, the world still treated me like a disabled person for the first time in my life and it made me very angry.

The “somewhat slutty, almost always drunken, angry blind chick shtick” was mine when I first started performing and of the three aspects of that crazy time, I would say the anger and its debilitating effects was most true. My poem, A Pain Named Dog is really about those long years when shame and anger ruled my life. It took many years and a lot of discipline to wrangle the pain into something worthwhile and not destructive.

The first time I embraced the blind cane was in my Yes we have no bananas dance sequence in The Star of Happiness, my one-woman show about Helen Keller’s time performing on vaudeville. Since then I’ve come to love my blind cane (Moses!) precisely because it is so unsexy and symbolic of helplessness, as I wrote about in Exploding Stigma.

I would certainly not wish my long and strange path into blindness on anyone, but I can’t say it’s not been a good learning experience! Likewise, I can’t say I prefer the pain of a long-degenerating eye disease to an imagined life without it, but I will say with Nietzsche, “I doubt that such pain makes us ‘better’ – but I know that it makes us deeper.”

This is all to say that although I am among those people who hope there will someday be a point when there will be no such thing as blindness, disability, degeneration of mind or body, for now, why not celebrate the chimerical nature of human bodies and minds?

That’s why I wanted to write about the Disability Pride Parade movement.

According to A Brief History of Disability Pride parades, the first Disability Pride Parade took place in Boston back in 1990, but they did not continue their pioneering work. Chicago jumped on the Disability Pride Parade bandwagon in 2004 and it is still going strong. Its 13th just took place on July 23rd, 2016. Other cities and towns which hosted (or will host) a Disability Pride Parade in 2016 include Philadelphia, PA (June 11), Trenton, NJ (October 7), and Nacogdoches, TX (April 16).

NYC celebrated its first Disability Pride Parade in 2015, and its 2nd took place this year on July 10. It was started by jazz musician Mike LeDonne, whose daughter was born in 2004 with multiple disabilities. On the DisabilityPrideNYC.org website LeDonne describes his inspiration thus:

“Even though she faces different challenges because of her disabilities she is the most beautiful creature on God’s green earth. It’s through my love for her that I started to want the rest of the world to see what I see and know what I know. One day a few years back, right after NYC celebrated Gay Pride Day, I asked myself why there isn’t a Disability Pride Day? Little did I know at the time that Disability Pride was already a national movement and an international one as well. I found that Chicago and other places already had a parade but not New York City? That just seemed wrong so I started making calls and taking it one step at a time learning as I went…. I’m hoping for a big party that not only celebrates people with disabilities but includes all people. A day to reject able-ism and worn-out stereotypes and replace them with a feeling of pride in who and what people with disabilities really are – just another diverse and beautiful aspect of humanity.”

This year it held the event in tandem with Sicily’s Disability Pride Parade, which perhaps suggests a future where the event will be celebrated internationally, lending it a universal solidity.

There can be no doubt that the Disability Pride parade movement is gathering momentum, but it seems to be in fits and starts. According to the Wikipedia page only 13 cities in the US have ever had a Disability Pride Parade, and sadly, many of these took place only one or two years (especially on the 20th anniversary of ADA in 2010) and then fizzled.

Perhaps the reason for this gets back to the structural difficulties of having Diversity embrace Disability. It sure would be nice if at least each state had a Disability Pride parade and even better if every town and city celebrated with a Disability Pride parade on the same day each year, like the 4th of July!

As the author of What’s Next? What’s the Point? Writes, the popularity of Disability Pride Parades is not a goal in itself, but a necessary step in a larger quest for acceptance on the one hand and self-worth on the other:

“Yes, popularity is important. We are happy to have the abled attend; we want them to attend and even participate. But the reason we want that is for them to hear the messages in those parades about acceptance and inclusion, because these attitudes and actions give birth to civil rights. Popularity serves our political purpose, thus we parade.

Beyond the parade that serves our political purposes with the abled audience lays a disabled audience that serves our social devotions. Ultimately, we parade for other disabled people, for they are our true audience. If disabled people who feel bad about themselves because society has taught them to feel that way see disabled people proudly parading down main street, then maybe they can learn to be proud of themselves as disabled people, and maybe even parade themselves someday.”

Cheers to that!

I knew no disability pride when I was growing into being a disabled person. These days, accessibility and disability seem to be almost hot topics, but not quite. Although There is a growing interest in people with disabilities–from memoires of people with disabilities writing their own life perspective to people with disabilities representing themselves in the media–there is still a long way to go. Marching in a parade with cool outfits, floats and different bodies and minds, is just one more way to enable one’s human power and joy.

 

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