Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Southern Ties of Helen Keller

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Southern Ties of Helen Keller

Article excerpt

THOUGH HELEN KELLER LEFT HER PARENTS' HOME IN TUSCUMBIA, Alabama, at the young age of eight, the culture, people, and sensory adventures of her native state were essential to her outlook throughout her life. The deaf-blind activist, author, and world traveler, born in 1880, considered Ivy Green, her family's Tuscumbia home, as her own. Beginning in her lifetime and continuing today, Tuscumbia and Alabama have similarly regarded her as their own--even featuring her on the 2003 state quarter. Keller was also a child of the broader South. Though after her initial departure she always lived outside the region, her southern childhood and family ties formed and constituted vital elements of her public and private identity. She claimed this identity fondly but frequently labeled as shameful the dominant southern racial ideologies and practices.

Paradoxically, it was perhaps Keller's disability that provided the opportunities that most frequently caused her to question southern gender and racial traditions. Her disability took her physically away from the South, as she and her family turned to northern educational institutions with historical ties to abolitionism. Her disability and her politics as an adult separated her from her family ideologically and geographically. Once she became world famous and increasingly active politically, those commenting upon or questioning her political ideas used her southern identity to either praise or deride her and her principles. As she traveled more, claiming global citizenship and analyzing national and world politics, she naturally did so from a base of knowledge and culture built on her southern background. Today, however, Keller is embraced as a national icon representing the triumphs of the disabled. Her image is now divorced from her southern identity. She is viewed as an American, devoid of regional affiliations or associations. In contrast, this essay positions Keller as a southerner of a Confederate family whose background and beliefs helped shape her worldview and her life as a white, southern woman with a disability. (1)

Keller and her family embraced an esteemed southern heritage, which they perhaps regarded as being more illustrious than it really had been. When Keller wrote her autobiography, The Story of My Life, in 1903, she described her lineage according to both geography and the Civil War. In this narrative the men served and the women sired. Helen's father, Arthur H. Keller, served as a captain and her maternal grandfather as a brigadier general for the Confederacy. Her paternal grandmother, she noted, was second cousin to Robert E. Lee. Captain Keller edited the Tuscumbia North Alabamian for many years and served in the mid-1880s as U.S. marshal for the northern district of Alabama. Through him, the young Helen claimed Alexander Spotswood, a lieutenant governor (and de facto governor) in early-eighteenth-century Virginia, as her great-great-grandfather. (2)

Captain Arthur Keller considered his family to be part of the deserving upper-class white elite, though they likely had less than he desired. Like many other southern landholding and formerly slaveholding whites, they had lost much of their wealth between 1860 and 1880. At the time of Helen Keller's birth, her family lived on the homestead her grandfather had built and named Ivy Green decades earlier due to the "beautiful English ivy" covering trees and fences. The Kellers were, however, no longer the wealthy family they once were. Moreover, the daily physical labor demanded to sustain the household, even with the aid of the formerly enslaved and their descendants, had surprised and exhausted Helen's young mother, Kate, after she became the second wife of the much older man whom all called Captain Keller. (3)

The young toddler Helen, Kate's first child, became blind and deaf due to an illness at the age of nineteen months. From Ivy Green, Arthur and Kate Keller sought assistance with the child whom they loved but, as she grew older, felt increasingly incapable of parenting. …

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