The Keller Plantation and the Racial Plot of Disability History in the U.S.
Keywords:Helen Keller, Plantation Slavery, Indigenous Removal, Black and Native Studies, Critical Geography
Between the popularization of Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life (1903), and the cinematic dramatization of The Miracle Worker (1962), scenes of Keller’s early life and education have served as touchstones through which nondisabled Americans have imagined disability’s history and narrowed its political possibilities: toward the conditional dispersal of access based on individual acts of overcoming. Yet, if Keller’s story has played an outsize role in consolidating disability’s history and politics, it is also a site of profound racial occlusion. The context of Keller’s early life on the Keller plantation in Tuscumbia, Alabama is largely absent from her popular legacy. With the disappearance of this context, the black people who facilitated Keller’s disabled coming of age have also fallen away, as well as the history of slavery and Indigenous removal that made her life story possible. This void—at the locus of perhaps the most hegemonic origin story of American disability history—is cause for critical race inquiry. This essay traces the relationship between the material background of Keller’s autobiography and its imaginative foreground; from her family’s role in settler conquest and slavery in the Alabama Muscle Shoals, to Keller’s status as a transcendent icon of disability. Reading between the plantation and the plot of Keller’s Story while locating both beside the Tennessee River’s shoals, this essay turns to theories of cartography and narrative authored by Sylvia Wynter and Tiffany Lethabo King for insight into a critical paradox: the antiblack and anti-Indigenous structure of ableism, and the whiteness of disabled representation. By resituating Keller’s iconicity in relation to conquest, slavery, and their afterlives, this essay locates the problems and possibilities of narrating black and Indigenous disability history from the Keller plantation’s surround. Yet, while invested in unsettling the landscape, I neither recover these stories nor entomb them as untellable. Instead, I write toward further investment in black and Indigenous counter-archives that have complicated who has been—and who remains—the imaginable and politically traction-able subject of disability.
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