By Scot French |
January 17, 2023

Historic Eatonville’s annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts & Humanities returns for its 34th year with a focus on “Spirituality Through an Afrofuturism Lens.”

Patrons of the Festival are invited to explore the intertwined themes of Afrofuturism and Spirituality in a year-long program of in-person and virtual events hosted by the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.)

The Festival Season kicked off on Saturday, January 7, with a “Happy Birthday Zora!” session of the Gathering & Gabbing Zora Neale Hurston Virtual Book Club. Participants explored the theme of spirituality in Hurston’s classic work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

On Saturday, Jan. 21, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., The Hurston Museum (344 E Kennedy Blvd, Eatonville) will host an opening exhibition, “A Vision of Spirituality in the Afrofuturist Universe: The Work of Granville Carroll,” with an artist talk at 2 p.m. Granville Carroll is a visual artist, educator, and Afrofuturist working with digital technology, poetry, and alternative processes to reshape the world. He highlights the imaginative qualities of the human mind through world building and storytelling to discover new futures and states of being. At the core of his practice is the investigation into metaphysics and the ontology of self and the universe. Free and open to the public; donations appreciated. 

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, and Friday, Jan. 27, the ZORA! Festival Academic Conference will continue its multiyear exploration of Afrofuturism with a focus on the question, “What is the Spirit of Afrofuturism?” Dr. Julian Chambliss, curator of the Festival’s five-year Afrofuturism Cycle (2020-2024), says that a consideration of Afrofuturism and spirit will open the door to a wide conversation. “From an engagement with African cosmology to tracing the legacy of African practice in Black religion,” he explains, “a consideration of spirit calls attention to the ways Afrofuturism seeks to recover cultural legacies that have been erased, contend with those practices that have evolved to support survival, and ask questions about what paths forward will support a better tomorrow.”

The academic conference opens with a keynote talk on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m., at Seminole State College’s Lake Mary Campus. Dr. Chesya Burke, an Assistant Professor of English and U.S. Literatures at Stetson University, will explore the interrelated concepts of Afrofuturism and “Sankofa” – a Ghanaian term that means “reaching back” – through the work of Zora Neale Hurston and her modern-day literary heir, Alice Walker. As Dr. Burke explains, “Afrofuturism quite literally is the act of acknowledging the practice of Sankofa (‘reaching back’) to the ancestors, while calling on histories, spirituality, and lived experiences to imagine new futures for Black people, despite the lack of representation in mainstream society. When looking at a literal act of Sankofa within Black American literary tradition, one needs only to look at Alice Walker’s act of ‘finding’ and ‘bringing back’ Zora Neale Hurston into modern Black consciousness.” The talk is sponsored by Seminole State College. Registration is free for Seminole State and UCF students, faculty, and staff.

The venue shifts to UCF’s Downtown Campus on Friday, Jan. 27, for a daylong program at the Dr. Phillips Academic Commons, 528 West Livingston St. (Rooms 106 A&B). The UCF program is sponsored by the College of Arts & Humanities, the Center for Humanities and Digital Research, and the Departments of History and English. Registration is free for UCF students, faculty, and staff.

The Friday program opens at 10 a.m. with welcoming remarks from N.Y. Nathiri, Executive Director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc.; Lyman Brodie, Executive Associate Dean of the UCF College of Arts & Humanities; Bruce Janz, Co-Director of UCF’s Center for the Humanities and Digital Research; and conference curator Julian Chambliss, Professor of English at Michigan State University.

At 10:30 a.m., UCF historian Scot French will deliver the opening keynote on “Moral Capitalism, Prosperity, and Visions of Community: Historic Eatonville and Black Liberation.” His talk will explore the spiritual links between the modern-day Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.) and the.Afrofuturist/Afrotopian vision of “moral capitalism” found in the Black town-building movement of the late 19th century

Dr. French is an Associate Professor of History, Director of Public History, and Associate Director of the Center for Humanities and Digital Research. Since 2018 he has curated three local exhibits on Hurston’s “Native Village” and published a peer-reviewed article, “Social Preservation and Moral Capitalism in the Historic Black Township of Eatonville, Florida: A Case Study in ‘Reverse Gentrification,’” in Change Over Time: An International Journal of Conservation and the Built Environment. He is chair of the ZORA! Festival’s Academics Committee and local organizer for the UCF Downtown portion of the conference. 

The afternoon session features a panel discussion on “Teaching Afrofuturism,” to be moderated by Seminole State College Humanities Professor Trent Tomengo. Panelists include Dr. French (who teaches a 1-credit UCF course on “Afrofuturism and the Hurston Legacy”), Dr. Julian Chambliss (Michigan State University), Dr. Rachel Braaten (Seminole State), Joven “J.C.” Carandang (Seminole State), Dr. Diana Reigelsperger (Seminole State), Dr. Kathryn Steinhaus (Seminole State), Dr. Stacy L. Tanner (Seminole State) and Dr. Neil Vaz (Seminole State), and Dr. Clarissa West White (Bethune-Cookman University).

The Friday program concludes with a keynote address by Afrofuturist community organizer Rasheedah Phillips, Esq., “Time and Place Have Had Their Say:” The Time Binder’s Role in Black Space-Time Mattering.” Her presentation “will consider Hurston in her role as Time Binder and her work to matter Black Space-Time and spirit, making legible the ways in which Black communities subvert, re-envision, reclaim, redesign, and dismantle the material realities of the mechanical clock and historical timeline, activating Black communal space-timescapes that are alive, dynamic, and textured and where past and future dimensions of time and the no-time of the spirit can be held in superposition.” Phillips is director of Housing for PolicyLink, founder of The AfroFuturist Affair and Black Quantum Futurism Collective, and co-creator of the award-winning Community Futures Lab project, a socially engaged art and research project that explores communal temporality, futurism, and preservation of memory and history in an area undergoing redevelopment, gentrification, and mass displacement. 

The January calendar culminates with the ZORA! Outdoor Festival of the Arts, to be held Friday through Sunday, Jan. 27-29, along East Kennedy Boulevard. Check the ZORA! Festival program for hours/details.

This article is adapted with permission from a Festival preview published in Orlando Arts (Jan./Feb 2023) and Winter Park Magazine (Winter 2023).