As the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (ZORA! Festival) enters its 33rd season with an expanded, year-round calendar of in-person and virtual events, one can only marvel at the entrepreneurial spirit and future-minded vision of the executive team that leads the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (PEC), the organization which presents this award-winning, nationally and internationally recognized event. A savvy team of marketing, social media, and web development professionals has brought an increasing awareness and “fan enthusiasm” for the event’s arts and humanities programming.
Faced with a virtual shut-down of in-person events last year, the ZORA! Festival “creatives” reimagined this year’s Festival Season as a year-round mix of face-to-face programs augmented by a podcast series (“An Eatonville Saga”), a virtual book club (“Gabbing and Gathering”), and scholar-led, issue-oriented webinars (“Community Conversations”) and conference panels (“Afrofuturism in the Visual Realm”).
Tying these programs together, as always, is a celebration of Historic Eatonville, Florida, population 2,500. Founded as a “race colony” in 1881, incorporated as an independent Black township in 1887, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, Eatonville is recognized today as one of the oldest incorporated African American municipalities in the country.
It is also the homeplace of the internationally acclaimed writer, scholar, and social critic Zora Neale Hurston, for whom the ZORA! Festival is proudly named. Hurston grew up in Eatonville during its early years and attended the Robert L. Hungerford Industrial School before moving to Jacksonville in 1904. She later attended Howard University and Barnard College, studied under the anthropologist Franz Boas, and conducted ethnographic research in her “native village” for her unfinished dissertation. A celebrated author of the Harlem Renaissance era, she revisited Eatonville often, both literally and figuratively, in works of fiction (Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1933, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937); folklore (Mules and Men, 1935); and autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942).
To those passing through town today Eatonville may seem rather quiet and unassuming, yet the town is a rarity. Of the fifty to sixty Black towns that were legally incorporated in nineteen states between 1865 and 1915 only a handful survive. In 2014, Eatonville joined with four other municipalities in the South to form the Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, Inc. (HBTSA), to preserve and promote the heritage and culture of their communities as a means to sustaining themselves via, among other initiatives, cultural heritage tourism.
N.Y. Nathiri, an Eatonville native and longtime executive director of the non-profit Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.), is blunt about the stakes involved in preserving Eatonville’s history and legacy for future generations. “If Eatonville goes away,” she says, “nothing like it will replace it. We are the dinosaur; we represent an extinct species.” The ZORA! Festival is critical, Nathiri says, “to help people get a better appreciation for what Eatonville is and what it represents.”
Nathiri narrates the story of Eatonville in a new podcast, “An Eatonville Saga: The Story of an Historic Black Town’s Struggle to Survive AND Thrive.” Over the course of more than 43 episodes, available via the P.E.C. website and other popular platforms, the podcast explores the “existential challenges the People of Eatonville face in the later quarter of the 20th Century and their efforts to thrive in a global economy.” (Check for additional episodes on the P.E.C. website or wherever you download your audiobooks and music).
Today, buoyed by the 33-year success of the ZORA! Festival and encouraged by her organization’s local, regional, and global partnerships, Nathiri sees bright prospects for preserving the Eatonville community. With smart development of the former Hungerford School site and a genuine commitment to historic preservation and economic revitalization, she says, the town can become “an internationally recognized cultural heritage tourism destination for the arts and culture throughout the African Diaspora,” grounded in the literary legacy and multidisciplinary scholarship of Zora Neale Hurston.
The 2022 Festival theme, “Eatonville Renaissance: Reimagining America in the 21st Century,” reflects an Afrofuturism-infused vision of Eatonville as a real-world Wakanda in the making. At a recent meeting of the Orange County Arts & Cultural Affairs Advisory Council, she shared an inspiring quote from a scholar-advisor who recognized both the town’s enduring historical legacy and its untapped potential:
What distinguishes Eatonville is its singular place in history and the prescient confluence of the practical and inspirational. Eatonville has the potential to be a lodestar for the global African diaspora, for other striving peoples rich in non-financial assets, and for citizens of the U.S. looking for a practicable end to our economic and political caste system. Nation-building needs an ‘Iroquois Confederation’ or a “Williamsburg.” I believe that real equity on a national scale needs an “Eatonville.”
Eatonville’s future, as a global cultural heritage destination, requires a year-round commitment to celebrating the town’s storied past while adapting to the challenges of the present and planning for the future. This year, in pursuit of that goal, the Festival is moving from a month-long January program to a year-round Festival season. Clustered in January, June, and October, each of the key events is designed to reach both a specific target audience as well as an inter-generational audience — hence, the 2022 Festival Season theme, “Celebrations for the Generations.”
For updates and tickets, please visit www.zorafestival.org.
2022 Festival Season Kick-off Event: A “Gathering and Gathering” Book Club Talk by Hurston Biographer Valerie Boyd (Friday, January 7, 6–8 p.m.)
The 2022 Festival Season kicks off on January 7 — Hurston’s birthday — with a talk by Valerie Boyd, author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Boyd’s book “delves into Hurston’s history — her youth in the country’s first incorporated all-black town, her friendships with luminaries such as Langston Hughes, her sexuality and short-lived marriages, and her mysterious relationship with vodou.” The talk will be held at Lias Hall in Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, 412 East Kennedy Boulevard. In-person and Virtual; Ticketed Event.
Exhibit Opening: Afrofuturism in the Visual Realm (Saturday, Jan. 8, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.)
Curated by Julian C. Chambliss, this Afrofuturism-themed exhibit (details TBA) will remain on display throughout the year at the Zora Neale Hurston Museum of Fine Arts, 344 East Kennedy Boulevard, Eatonville. Free and open to the public.
The Sunday Series: Art in Eatonville (Jan. 9, 16, 23, 30, from 2–5 p.m.)
This program will feature art at three venues: The Hurston Museum, 344 East Kennedy Boulevard; St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal Church, 549 East Kennedy Boulevard, Eatonville; and the Matilda Moseley House Museum, 11 Taylor Street, Eatonville. Free and open to the public.
Yards & Gardens of Eatonville Driving Tour (Sunday, January 23, 3–5 p.m).
Festival-goers are invited to explore the gardening traditions of Eatonville, dating back to the earliest days of the community’s founding in the late 19th century. In-Person Ticketed Event.
Africa-America Women’s Economic Forum & Trade Expo (Tuesday–Wednesday, January 25–26, Crummer Graduate School of Business, Rollins College).
Now in its third year, this international Forum is dedicated to “building a sustainable economic relationship between Africa and America through networking and education for women entrepreneurs and elected officials.” In-Person and Virtual Ticketed Event; Pre-Registration Required.
UCF Downtown Academic Conference: Afrofuturism in the Visual Realm (Thursday–Friday, January 27–28).
Hosted by the University of Central Florida and curated by Julian C. Chambliss (formerly of Rollins College, now at Michigan State University), this two-day conference will continue the Festival’s exploration of Afrofuturism and the Black speculative imagination. “This year marks a major milestone as our exploration of Afrofuturism turns toward visual culture,” Chambliss says. “As we continue to endure the impact of a global pandemic, the need to see new ways forward resonates. I think this year’s festival will provide a needed jolt to many attendees.” In-Person and Virtual; Free and Open to the Public; Pre-Registration Required.
Outdoor Festival of the Arts in Eatonville (Friday–Sunday, January 28–30).
Formerly held on the Hungerford School campus, the Outdoor Festival returns this year with a new location, “The Preserve at Eatonville.” Located near Lake Hungerford (“where Zora lived for a time”), at the corner of Lake Destiny Road and West Kennedy Boulevard, the 13-acre site is an undeveloped natural preserve. “It’s almost like a Garden of Eden,” says N.Y. Nathiri. As always, the main stage will feature national performers, while other areas have been set aside for authors, vendors, a community stage, and children’s activities. Friday (“Education Day”) is free and open to the public. Saturday (“Family Day”) and Sunday (“Day of Reflection”) are free for K-12 students; ticketed admission required for all others.
CosPlay Gala: A Collaborative Evening with the Orlando Urban Film Festival & the Urban Nerd Con (Saturday, January 29, 7:30–10 p.m.)
This evening event, to be held at the Sheraton-Orlando North in Maitland, will serve as closing ceremonies for the Festival — “a great celebration between three collaborative partners: Urban Nerd Con, ZORA Festival, and Orlando Urban Film Festival,” says organizer Jason Gregory, director of the Urban Film Festival and a lecturer in the UCF Film Department. “We will begin with the sounds of Afrofuturism from internationally known pianist and composer, Dunn Pearson Jr., followed by the OUFF awards ceremony. During the ceremony, we will select winners from each category and present them with awards and honors.” Ticketed Event.
Later-in-the-year Festival events include “Traditions” Weekend: Middle School and High School Students Celebrate Black Music Month (June 17–18) and “HATitude Cultural Flair,” An African and African-American “Design” Event (Saturday, October 29).
For up-to-date scheduling and ticket information, visit the Festival website at ZoraFestival.org. Call 407-647-3307 and ask for Cynthia. Visit The Hurston Museum, 344 East Kennedy Boulevard, M-F, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Saturday (except holiday weekends), 11 a.m.–2 p.m.
Dr. Scot French is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Florida and Chair of the ZORA! Festival Academics Committee. An edited version of this article appears in Winter Park Magazine/Orlando Arts Magazine; the original text, revised for use by P.E.C., is published here with permission.