Their eyes were watching Zora: Festival celebrating Eatonville author Zora Neale Hurston kicks off

Executive director of festival shares family’s personal history, connection with Hurston

EATONVILLE, Fla. – Eatonville: Home to the “Genius of the South” and the annual festival that celebrates her.

The 33rd ZORA! Festival, which runs through the month of January, is back to honor Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurston is the dazzling mind behind such literary classics as “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” “Mules and Men,” “Spunk” and “Dust Tracks on a Road,” a nonfiction piece which stands alone in a sea of stories.

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And no one knows the ins and outs of Hurston’s nature better than N.Y. Nathiri, who acts as a living conduit for the author by sharing stories of a woman her family knew intimately.

“Zora Neale Hurston was really a part of my family, my family life, my family traditions. My grandmother and Zora Neale Hurston were the same age and they were actually... friends and acquaintances,” said Nathiri, executive director of The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community (P.E.C.) “I knew of (Hurston) as a part of my family lore.”

For Nathiri’s family, Hurston embodied that ability to make an impact on the larger world, and as her grandmother put it, helped them understand that “just because we were living in a small community, didn’t mean our horizons needed to be small.”

“Look at the books that she’s read and others she’s written and where she has traveled in the world. And so that’s how I knew of her,” Nathiri said.

Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurston taught her Uncle Sam to play bridge and encouraged her Uncle Gus to pursue a Rollins College swimming scholarship, at the same time Adolf Hitler was trying to prove Germany’s worth in the 1936 Olympics, against a backdrop of discrimination witnessed around the world.

But Hurston refused to subscribe to the racist ideologies plaguing global perspectives. Instead, she inspired, packing an arsenal of novels, short stories and plays to enshrine the struggles and triumphs of African American life in the South.

It’s a subject with which Hurston, whose family moved from Alabama to Florida when she was a toddler, was deeply familiar. Within her body of work, Hurston traverses Central Florida’s terrain in a quest to capture the Black experience that exists within it.

Eatonville inspired Hurston just as Hurston inspires Eatonville, home to the nation’s oldest all-Black community.

“She has made Eatonville a literary destination. Certainly without her... we wouldn’t have the international reputation that we have,” Nathiri said.

Since 1990, over 1.5 million people have come to the mecca that made this modern artist for the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.

Every year Eatonville hosts a Zora! festival to honor Zora Neale Hurston, the dominant female voice of the Harlem Renaissance era. (

This year’s festival will include a month’s worth of events, starting on Jan. 7, including a book club with featured guest speaker Valerie Boyd, author of the Hurston biography “Wrapped in Rainbows,” an Afrofuturism exhibition and conference, an outdoor festival of the arts, an art series and even a cosplay gala.

In the months following the festival, children and teens can even get involved in a battle of the bands and talent show, tailored by and for middle and high school students, launching in June during Black Music Appreciation Month.

“We wanted to do something that really is within the keeping of historic preservation, cultural preservation and that is a generational continuum,” Nathiri said. “In order for your community — whoever that community is — in order for it to sustain itself, your young people must know and appreciate, value, that history, that culture.”

The festival’s “Celebrations for the Generations” theme highlights this idea, promising to capture the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance leader for all ages.

“In their soul, they will be rejuvenated, they will be inspired,” said Nathiri, of anyone looking to attend the celebration. “They’ll be able to experience something that can help alleviate that kind of burden that we’re having to carry.”

Tickets for musical headliners George Clinton and The Parliament Funkadelic, jazz artist Kim Waters and trumpeter Tom Browne, originally set to perform at the end of January, but now rescheduled for Saturday, June 4 and Sunday, June 5, respectively, can be found at

The outdoor festival was rescheduled following a surge of COVID-19 cases in the area.

“After extensive consultation with the festival’s stakeholders, community leaders and Mrs. N.Y. Nathiri, P.E.C.’s Executive Director, our Board has chosen to reschedule the Outdoor Festival of the Arts to June 4-5, due to the surge in COVID infections in Central Florida,” Winfred Chad McKendrick, president of P.E.C.’s governing board, said in an email. “While we looked forward to this year’s celebrations with great anticipation, we know that the health of our festival attendees and our community is of paramount importance.”

Tickets bought for the January performances will be honored in June and those wishing to refund tickets should follow the prompts here.

Individual tickets for events range from free to $75. Weekend packages, which bundle tickets to the festival’s musical headliners, start at $30 and go up to $400 for those who want exclusive lodging. For more information, visit

About the Author:

Samantha started at WKMG-TV in September 2020. Before joining the News 6 team, Samantha was a political reporter for The Villages Daily Sun and has had freelance work featured in the Evansville Courier-Press and The Community Paper. When not writing, she enjoys travelling and performing improv comedy.