Road Trip: Eatonville, Fla., and the Zora Neale Hurston Festival

During Reconstruction many all-black communities were established by former slaves desiring to go about their daily lives independent of whites. Eatonville, Fla., 6 miles north of downtown Orlando, is one of the few that still survive today.

Author Zora Neale Hurston, a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance literary movement that blossomed in the 1920s and '30s, grew up in Eatonville in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and used the town as a setting in her best-known novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Hurston was a complex figure, criticized by some of her colleagues for using a phonetic dialect in her writings that many of her fellow African-American writers -- most notably author Richard Wright -- perceived as demeaning to blacks.

In her time she also went against the grain by speaking out against President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal because she believed it would make blacks too dependent on the government. This might have endeared her with conservatives, but she was also a feminist who, had she lived long enough, might have been marching with the ERA movement in the 1970s.

Eatonville’s favorite daughter is celebrated each year during the last week of January with the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, which  has become a destination for people of many countries and cultures.

Zora Festival

This will be the 22nd year for the Zora Festival, as it is also known. Like the woman it's named for, the festival is multifaceted. It's a street festival with plenty of live music, food vendors and merchants selling their handmade arts and crafts. It also features educational programs, academic panels, lectures, movie screenings and theatrical productions to complement its street-festival vibe.

The film “A Powerful Noise" (screening Jan. 25) examines the lives of three women from different cultures and their daily struggle with poverty and oppression. Atlanta-based writer Pearl Cleage, whose work is on the Oprah's Book Club list, will be a featured lecturer at this year's fest.

Haitian connection

Along with being a novelist, Hurston was also an anthropologist who did fieldwork in Haiti; her book “Tell My Horse” documents her folklore studies there. One of the themes of this year’s festival is this connection to Haiti, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake last January and draw attention to the continuing struggle with recovery efforts.

Haitian culture and artists will be spotlighted at the new Haitian Pavilion. The pavilion will feature artisans from the island nation selling authentic Haitian goods and cuisine, giving them an opportunity to pocket some much-needed income to take back home. The “Remembering Haiti” evening program will showcase Haitian music and visual arts.

Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts

Also known as the Hurston, the small museum with a big heart is on Kennedy Boulevard, the main thoroughfare in Eatonville. The exhibition space may be tiny compared with other museums, but don't let that dissuade you from entering. You'll find a friendly docent ready to assist with your visit. Admission is free but donations are appreciated. The "Art From Haiti" exhibit will open on Jan. 22.

Audubon Center for Birds of Prey

If you need a break from the festival this raptor sanctuary is close by. It's a rehabilitation center for birds of prey that have been injured, but visitors are welcome to see the important work that is done there. Kids will get a thrill out of seeing these magnificent creatures up close. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for children; 3 and under free. 1101 Audubon Way (take East Street three blocks north from Kennedy Boulevard).

Where to stay

Thurston House. B&B in a restored 19th century home on the east side of Eatonville (note that many Eatonville addresses are listed as Maitland, the larger adjacent town). Rates run $185-$195. 851 Lake Ave., Maitland. 407-539-1911, www.thurstonhouse.com.

Park Plaza. Boutique hotel in Winter Park, a couple of miles southeast of Eatonville. Rates start at $160. 307 Park Ave. South, Winter Park. 407-647-1072, www.parkplazahotel.com.

Where to eat

Lowe's Good Eaton. Southern soul food infused with a bit of Caribbean flair in the center of town. Under $10. 429 E. Kennedy Blvd., Maitland. 407-647-7955.

Antonio's La Fiamma. A fine dining Italian restaurant upstairs; a cafe, deli and wine shop downstairs. Dinner entrees in the restaurant start at $10.95. 611 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland. 407-645-1039, www.antoniosonline.com.

Visitor information

Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. Jan. 22-30. Presented by the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community. 407-647-3307, www.zorafestival.com.