Friday, February 25, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Helen Keller: "I am not dumb now" and "Strike Against War"

If you spend any time at all doubting your abilities as a speaker, I give you Helen Keller.  Born in 1880, an illness before she reached age 2 left her deaf, blind and apparently unable to speak--and in those days, that was called "dumb." Her eventual teacher, Annie Sullivan, taught her the link between words and a homemade form of sign language. But did the blind and deaf woman who went on to a 50-year-long speaking career actually learn to speak out loud?

I love that Keller's great-grandniece, Keller Johnson-Thompson, is answering this and other questions on the Hellen Keller Kids' Museum Online, from the American Foundation for the Blind. She shares that Helen was excited about learning to speak even at age 10, with teacher Sarah Fuller:
Helen and Ms. Fuller sat down to begin a task that many claimed was impossible. Ms. Fuller began by placing Helen's hand on her face and in her mouth, lightly at first. This allowed Helen to feel the position of Fuller's tongue and lips when she made a sound. She then shaped Helen's own mouth for making basic vowel sounds. She took Helen's hand and placed it on her throat so that Helen could feel the vibrations. For the next hour, the two focused on making the sounds of language. Helen would gently touch Fuller's face, mouth, tongue, and throat. Helen's hands also probed her own mouth and neck, as she tried to copy what Ms. Fuller was doing. First, she learned to form sounds. With time, she uttered her first sentence: "It is too warm."
That happened before we had recording technology, but here's a rare video, many decades later, with her longtime teacher Annie Sullivan, in which you can see the technique they used and hear Keller say, movingly, "I am not dumb:"

Her 1916 'Strike Against War' speech is as strong an example of how Keller used her public speaking voice as you can find. Take the first paragraph, in which she makes clear that her disability is no barrier to the opinions she's about to express:

To begin with, I have a word to say to my good friends, the editors, and others who are moved to pity me. Some people are grieved because they imagine I am in the hands of unscrupulous persons who lead me astray and persuade me to espouse unpopular causes and make me the mouthpiece of their propaganda. Now, let it be understood once and for all that I do not want their pity; I would not change places with one of them. I know what I am talking about. My sources of information are as good and reliable as anybody else's. I have papers and magazines from England, France, Germany and Austria that I can read myself. Not all the editors I have met can do that. Quite a number of them have to take their French and German second hand. No, I will not disparage the editors. They are an overworked, misunderstood class. Let them remember, though, that if I cannot see the fire at the end of their cigarettes, neither can they thread a needle in the dark. All I ask, gentlemen, is a fair field and no favor. I have entered the fight against preparedness and against the economic system under which we live. It is to be a fight to the finish, and I ask no quarter.
"Neither can they thread a needle in the dark." How's that for an eloquent reference--and the only one here--to her disability and her ability, at once, and with a vivid mind-picture to which any listener can relate?

There's more to love in this speech, I think:
  • She makes simple, with language, the striking concept of non-violent resistance: "All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms." At a time when America was pressed to join what was then called "The Great War," Keller shared all the pro-war arguments, then reduced them with this one sentence--one to which any listener could relate.
  • She's fearless:  For someone with apparently every communication strike against her, Keller minces no words, and delivers a speech that would make a brave person think twice. She does not hesitate to refute the current tide of opinion: "we have no enemies foolhardy enough to attempt to invade the United States. The talk about attack from Germany and Japan is absurd. Germany has its hands full and will be busy with its own affairs for some generations after the European war is over." This turned out to be true.
  • She called out those who criticized her views using her disability:  Few recall Keller as the socialist she was, but once she found her voice, she used it for the downtrodden. She campaigned against war and for women's votes and the working class, along with many other radical causes--and decried those who only pointed out her disability when they disliked her views. Of one newspaperman, she said, "At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him."
  • Her call to action is strong: Using repetition of the active verb "strike," she concludes this talk by saying: "Strike against all ordinances and laws and institutions that continue the slaughter of peace and the butcheries of war. Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing scrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human being." And note that she puts you in the speech, "for without you no battles can be fought." Throughout this speech, she subtly and powerfully reminds that war only takes place with your consent and participation.
Here's a video that summarizes this speech with images from the Great War:

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