Historic Eatonville’s annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts & Humanities — better known as the ZORA! Festival — returned for its 35th year this January themed as “The Reunion.” A strong and steady partnership between UCF and Preserve Eatonville Community (P.E.C.) affords students and faculty opportunities to share in Zora Neale Hurston’s American story.
Organizers will welcome thousands of new and returning visitors to the nation’s oldest incorporated all-Black town just as controversy is raging over potential development of the 100-acre property on Kennedy Boulevard that once housed the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School.
Launched by P.E.C. as a preservation marketing tool in 1990, the ZORA! Festival has grown from a three-day cultural event into a year-round program of activities that model effective heritage tourism and economic revitalization for marginalized and undeserved communities.
The main attraction is the Outdoor Festival of the Arts, which will take place from Friday, January 26, to Sunday, January 28, along East Kennedy Boulevard. Visitors will enjoy food, music, dozens of vendor booths and a wide range of activities for all ages.
But there’s much more to the ZORA! Festival than one jam-packed weekend celebrating the Harlem Renaissance-era writer, whose memories of growing up in Eatonville — which she called her “native village” — infuse her critically acclaimed works of folklore (Mules and Men, 1935), fiction (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937) and autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942).
The 2024 festival opened at the Orlando Public Library with a “Happy Birthday, Zora!” celebration on January 7. The event included jazz, poetry and a lecture by Rondrea Mathis, an assistant professor of English at Bethune-Cookman University, who discussed “Zora Neale Hurston and Black Women’s Self-Definition.”
ZORA! Festival activities moved back to Eatonville with an exhibition opening, Voices: The Art of Louise Deininger, and a gallery talk from Deininger, a conceptual artist, author and leadership coach, at the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts on January 20.
The four-day Afrofuturism Conference kicks off on Wednesday, Jan. 24, with an evening talk by Andrea Roberts, whose topic will be “Creating Counternarratives: Foundations for Just Planning & Preservation.” Roberts is a planning historian and preservationist at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. This virtual-only event, which starts at 7:00 p.m., will be presented in partnership with a speaker series sponsored by Seminole State College. Registration is required.
The in-person/livestreamed portion of the program begins on Thursday, January 25, at 9 a.m., when Eatonville’s Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church will host welcoming remarks and keynote addresses on the theme of “Afrofuturism in the Spatial Realm.”
The conference has explored Afrofuturism through “Sound” (2021), “Vision” (2022) and “Spirit” (2023). The 2024 conclave will turn its attention to “Space” — virtual, real and imagined — which is particularly relevant given the unresolved status of the Hungerford property.
Conference organizer and cycle curator Julian Chambliss, a Michigan State University historian who formerly taught at Rollins College, will speak on “The Hungerford Legacy and the History of Black Futures.”
Sharing the podium with Chambliss will be UCF digital humanities specialist and philosophy professor Bruce Janz, who will pose the question, “Where is the African Future in Afrofuturism?” The two-day conference, which will feature several other Afrofuturism-themed presentations and panel discussions, will conclude with a lecture by Lonny J. Avi Brooks, professor of communications at California State University East Bay, who’ll discuss the creation of virtual reality worlds that support communities of color.
How is Afrofuturism defined? While the Marvel film Black Panther helped introduce the concept, Chambliss notes that Black writers and artists have been engaging in the design of “future spaces” — like Eatonville itself — for more than a century.
Today, he says, Afrofuturism is broadly understood to include a wide range of “Black speculative practice” that “critiques the status quo and projects a liberatory vision for the future.” At the core of Afrofuturism, he adds, “is an emphasis on trying to create a system that’s more equitable with a core goal of collective care for everyone.”
Other than the welcoming event, conference activities will take place at Eatonville’s Denton Johnson Community Center. The conference is sponsored by UCF’s College of Arts & Humanities and its Center for Humanities and Digital Research. Registration is required. The ZORA! Festival will also include a Progressive Reception on Thursday, January 25, beginning at 5 p.m. The reception will begin at the Hurston Museum and conclude at the Maitland Art Center, where participants will see the Eatonville-related paintings and drawings of art center founder J. André Smith, a friend and mentor of Hurston’s. Other ZORA! Festival events will include two presented in partnership with the Florida Historical Society at Eatonville’s Life Center Church. “The Complete History of Florida (In Less Than an Hour!)” is set for Friday, January 26, at 10 a.m., while “Female Florida: Historic Women in Their Own Words” will follow at noon.
The Eatonville Branch Library will host a meet-and-greet event with children’s author Alicia D. Williams on Friday, January 26, at 10:30 a.m. In addition, Hurston scholar and storyteller Rae Chesny (Zora’s Garden) will lead a “Walking Tour of Zora’s Eatonville” on Saturday, January 27, beginning at 10 a.m. Participants will meet at the Hurston Museum.
A ticketed event, “An Evening Inspired by Zora,” will be held on Saturday, January 27, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Harlem Renaissance attire is encouraged at the gathering, the venue for which had not been finalized at press time.
The January calendar will culminate with the ever-popular (and previously mentioned) ZORA! Outdoor Festival of the Arts. Some events require registration and may be subject to change, so visit zorafestival.org for the most up-to-date schedules and additional program details.
AFROFUTURISM: A DEFINITION
Scholars first adopted the term “Afrofuturism” in the 1990s to describe works of science fiction that explored African American themes and concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture. Since then, Afrofuturism studies have expanded to include everything from the 19th-century abolitionist oratory of Frederick Douglass to the 21st-century music and stage performances of Prince, Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe, a groundbreaking actor, musician, futurist and fashion icon. Julian Chambliss, a ZORA! Festival speaker and Afrofuturism scholar, says: “Every Black person alive, whenever they are alive, is looking toward the future. It’s that mix of speculative practice and liberation that I think of as being core to Afrofuturism.”