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Heritage, Community, and the Importance of Representation

Sit down with New York Times bestseller Rio Cortez and learn about how you can help minority groups in your community feel included and valued.

I’ve attended the English Reading Series for years now, and I love getting to hear about the author’s work and inspiration. But sometimes that hour can fly by, and I’m left wishing I had more time with the author. I was thrilled, then, when I got the chance to sit down with ERS speaker Rio Cortez, a renowned Black artist, to discuss how her heritage as a Black woman influences her writing. Cortez is the author of the poetry collection Golden Ax, New York Times best-selling picture book The ABCs of Black History, and forthcoming picture book The River Is My Sea.

In the author’s note for Golden Ax Cortez wrote, “Much like the way Afrofuturism seeks to envision a future for Black people at the intersection of imagination and science fiction . . . in many ways Golden Ax hopes to find its place and definition as a work of ‘Afropioneerism’ or ‘Afrofrontierism,’ terms that describe and inform my family ancestry and experience.” During the interview we discussed Cortez’s heritage and the themes of finding one’s community and the importance of representation.

Ellie Smith: You’ve written in a couple of different mediums, poetry and children’s books. Why those two genres? And why the switch between them?

Rio Cortez: I think of it as all poetry in a way but for different audiences. I studied poetry in graduate school, and before that I was interested in writing poetry as early as eight years old. But I never thought about writing for kids until I became a mom. I was in a unique position, working in an archive library called the Schomburg Center here in Harlem. It has an incredible collection of artifacts related to Black culture and experience. The combination of becoming a new mother and being in that archive was the inspiration for The ABCs of Black History. The ABCs of Black History is a rhyming poem in verse. It’s a really friendly medium to write as a poet, picture books. If you’re interested in writing for the audience of children, a lot of picture books use poetry as a device to speak to children. All the picture books I’ve written so far, I think of as just poems but for younger people.

The cover of Golden Ax
Photo by Ellie Smith

ES: Have you had to do a lot of adapting since those poems are for younger people, like maybe changing your vocabulary?

RC: Yes, totally. If you’ve read Golden Ax, my adult collection, it’s not very child friendly. So it’s really important to me in writing picture books that I’m talking in a language that children feel is direct, clear, and truthful. In my adult poetry, I think those words would not describe the way that I’m writing at all. I’m writing in a lot more of an ambiguous way. I’m giving adult readers a lot more trust to find the truth in the language somewhere else. So totally different approaches.

ES: Heritage features very heavily into your writing. Why is that such an important subject to you?

RC: I think it’s just part of my identity. It’s hard for me not to write what I know, actually. A lot of Golden Ax has to do with heritage, specifically my family’s lineage, ancestry, and genealogy. That is an important question that a lot of people ask. Most people ask themselves about where they come from and why they are the way they are and why they are where they are. That’s why I write about that in Golden Ax. It’s just important to me, my identity, and where I came from.

ES: You spent about 10 years researching and working on Golden Ax, discussing Black pioneerism. Are there other aspects of Black history in Utah that you want to research and then write more about?

RC: There’s probably a lot of fascinating stuff about Black history in Utah that I would like to know. I don’t have anything specifically. Right now, I’m still focused on my family’s story. I think what’s interesting is thinking about the context of my family. The context for them being the story of other Black communities within Utah and how they saw themselves. I didn’t grow up in Utah with a Black community, though I know other people had different experiences. The question of community and Black community in Utah is something that’s been really interesting to me over the years. I think there’s probably a lot more to know, and I love that.

ES: With that in mind, there is a lack of diversity in some ways in Utah, but we want to help promote and make people feel welcome so that no one feels lonely when they’re growing up in Utah, especially if they are a little bit different. What advice do you have for people who want to help do something about that?

RC: When I think about when I was younger, and about some loneliness that I felt in terms of Utah not being a very racially diverse place, what would have helped was some acknowledgement of that from my peers. And for people to do their own kinds of education. I think sometimes it can unduly fall on the shoulders of a marginalized person to educate other people about who they are. If folks around them proactively found ways to expose themselves to different types of people and didn’t put that burden on the one marginalized person in their community, it would go a long way.

Ellie with Rio Cortez
Photo by Ellie Smith

ES: Are there any books or media that people can look at specifically to help educate themselves about this?

RC: There are all kinds of really great nonfiction writers and journalists who are writing on the subject of race. And there’s some really fantastic documentaries out there. A lot of people talk about Ava DuVernay’s 13th or Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. If you’d like different media formats, there’s a book of The 1619 Project, there’s a Hulu series, and my favorite version is the podcast. It started at the New York Times, and it has really excellent interview footage and sound qualities. Those are two quick places, but I feel like any library or school library should have some sort of curation around these types of writers that you would be able to check out.

ES: Are there any other things that people can do that might have helped you as you were growing up to feel less alone? Or to help with the community?

RC: There are probably things that I wished I had more of from my teachers, such as specifically assigning books by different authors of color. If I had the opportunity to read books by Black writers in middle school or high school, that might have made a difference in terms of how I saw myself in the world. But not just me reading those books, my peers and classmates being exposed to work by different writers of color would have been really helpful. Things like that. I feel like I’ll probably sit with that question and think a lot about how things might have been different. But it’s hard. I think the biggest service is obviously helping somebody find a community of people who look like them. But if you don’t have that, then it’s a really challenging question. I think the best you can do is to be a bright community who’s exposing yourself to the art, culture, and history of other people as much as possible.