You couldn’t breathe until the trees were gone

A new film by documentarians Sara Newens and Mina T. Son shows yet another way in which nature is enlisted to marginalize Black communities.

Still from Racist Trees © 2022.

Since Black American jazz singer Billie Holiday sang of “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” in her 1939 anti-lynching ballad, the popular representation of American trees has been haunted by the nation’s history of enlisting nature in terror. “I wonder if every white man in this country, when he plants a tree, doesn’t see negroes hanging from its branches,” French dramatist Jean Genet pondered in the introduction to the 1970 printing of Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson—an epistolary biography that recounts Jackson’s life and politics as a Black American activist and prisoner in California’s San Quentin State Prison prior to his attempted prison escape and subsequent murder. In Toni Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, a fugitive slave woman named Sethe has whipping lashes on her back that have healed into the shape of a chokecherry tree. “I got a tree on my back and a haint in my house, and nothing in between but the daughter I am holding in my arms. No more running—from nothing, I will never run from another thing on this earth,” Sethe asserts. And decades later, Percival Everett’s 2021 The Trees, a work of crime fiction set in a small town in Mississippi, follows a series of murders that share an uncanny link to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old lynching victim whose brutal murder in the very same state continues to rupture the very metaphysics of time and space, life, and death.

With the release of Racist Trees (2022), documentarians Sara Newens and Mina T. Son join in this artistic and intellectual tradition of arboreal inquiry in their film’s exploration of Crossley Tract, a historically Black community in Palm Springs where residents organized for the removal of tamarisks trees that have separated their under-resourced and state-neglected neighborhood from the luxury views of the Tahquitz Golf Course. Staging a decades-long fight for the tree felling, Black residents expressed feeling excluded from the city on account of their race and point to the overgrown wall of tamarisk trees that seclude their neighborhood as emblematic of the community’s historic planning (and planting) of racial segregation. In addition to their concerns that the tamarisks were “racially planted,” Black residents also filed unaddressed reports to the city dating back to 2004 detailing issues of property damage, rodent infestation, and property value loss on account of the trees. From here, the film’s titular proposition, that a perennial plant could be racist, draws us into a local dispute that gained national and international attention for its supposed indictment of nature for the crimes of man.

Still from Racist Trees © 2022.

Broken up into five chapters that organize the film with a series of questions, Racist Trees asks: How can trees be racist? Where did they come from? Which side are you on? How did we get here? What happens next? To answer these questions, each chapter provides an assortment of voices including generational residents, recent transplants, archivists, local journalists, arborists, tribal members, and more. From these various perspectives, a complex picture of Palm Springs takes shape, one which exposes the roots of settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, displacement, dispossession, and industry development that give the resort city its unique and historic allure.  After all, as Tyrone Beason of the Los Angeles Times puts it, “When most people think of Palm Springs they think of a getaway. But the getaway is different depending on who you are.”

Situating Palm Springs as a planned community shaped by the early formation of the American film and tourism industry, the film opens with a scene of the city’s racial economy at work. A city tour guide is speaking to a group of mostly white tourists about the development of Palm Springs when one of the tourists asks a question about the history of Black architects and racial discrimination in Palm Springs. The tour guide begins to tell the tourist about the “No Blacks, No Jews” policies which were in effect from the city’s early inception as a site for vacations and film productions. Soon, the documentary shifts from the tourist view of Palm Springs to that of its residents who live with the region’s history all year round.

Charles Metcalf Jr., a second-generation Black resident of Crossley Tract, details the legacy of the neighborhood. As the history goes, Crossley Tract was founded by Lawrence Crossley, a Black businessman, land developer, and golf course designer from Louisiana who bought the plot in the 1920s to house the Black staff and stars, whose labor and talent was integral to Palm Springs but who were not allowed to live in its downtown residential areas. Creating opportunities for Black homeownership at a time when “Black people couldn’t get home loans,” Crossley set the foundation for what would become a Black enclave in the white resort city.

Having grown up in Crossley Tract some decades after the community was established, Metcalf Jr. reflects on the warm community of Black people, many of which migrated to California from Mississippi and Texas in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, who made up the neighborhood. Metcalf Jr. notes that his first lesson in the racial legacy of his home came from the tamarisk trees that flanked the tract. “As we got older, we started to understand why these trees were here and nowhere else. They were planted to hide this community because of the people who lived here,”  he asserts. Kevin Williams, another Black resident born and raised in Crossley Tract, recalls getting golf balls out of the trees as a child and bringing them back to Tahquitz. As an adult, Williams considers the trees an obstruction to his family’s access to their backyard. “My kids can’t play back here,” he explains, naming the damage the trees have caused to his yard equipment and pool, as well as the rodents and snakes which populate the colossal shrubs. Like Metcalf Jr., Williams views the trees as a symbol of segregation and neglect. “I feel like I’m not a part of Palm Springs with these trees up,” he says looking into the camera.

Taking the issue to City Hall, Black residents challenge Palm Springs’ narrative of the trees as a “nuisance issue” or a “debate on aesthetics,” by arguing that their planting was a byproduct of racist community development. According to The Desert Sun reporter Corinne Kennedy, the majority of white and black residents thought that “race played some factor” in either the planting of the trees or in their delayed removal. Still, as the documentary shows, those who remain unconvinced or simply unmoved by the narrative of the “racist trees,” reveal the greater stakes of the removal. “I just can’t see a tree being racist, ” a white resident named Donald remarks. He concedes that racism may have been “somewhat of an issue” in the initial planting of the tamarisks, but rejects the suggestion that today’s residents be implicated in that legacy. “Why do we have to pay for that today?” he asks. His question reverberates throughout our contemporary discourses of historical memory, social responsibility, and reparations. Though Donald has certainly benefited from the history he wishes not to “pay for,” his flippance is instructive. He knows the weight of the question is not his to bear. And now viewers know it too.

Others attempt to disprove the “racist trees” theory on the grounds of Palm Springs’ unique atmosphere of inclusivity. “Accusing Palm Springs of being racist now is ridiculous,”  JR Roberts, the white Pro Tem Mayor of Palm Springs, asserts. Emphasizing the city’s reputation as a “liberal progressive utopia” with a considerable representation of LGBTQ+ people among its residents and political offices, Roberts claims that experiences with the “anger and ugliness” of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination has made city officials more sympathetic to the racial plight of Black residents. The whiteness of the “gayest city council in the United States” glares as their politics of sympathy continue to fall short of anything close to solidarity. This is why when Trae Daniel, a white resident who moved to Crossley Tract in 2003, is met with scrutiny when he becomes the public face of the tree removal campaign. Janel Hunt from the Palm Springs Black History Committee expresses genuine skepticism about Daniels’ investment in leading the charge on organizing efforts that long preceded his arrival. “The can has certainly been kicked before. What Trae has done is not something new but the city has turned a deaf ear to us,” Hunt asserts.

Still from Racist Trees © 2022.

Metcalf Jr. also struggles with the reality that a white face on the campaign has facilitated more political momentum on the issue than ever before. “Nothing happened until there was a white man […] because he said something now the city wants to do something,” he remarks. On some level, both Hunt and Metcalf Jr. understand that winning with Trae still registers as a loss of greater kind. If Palm Springs finally listens because a white man is talking, the trees are the least of their concerns.

For Trae, the matter is less complex. “They say that these trees were not racially motivated, that they were not racially planted there. They can prove that by one simple act: remove the trees,” Trae asserts. If only it were so simple. In addition to being burdened with leadership concerns concerning Trae, Black residents involved in the campaign must also reconcile that “racism isn’t always provable.” Digitized archives of early Palm Springs development generate new developments in the movement. Early aerial shots of the tract show tamarisk trees planted on all four sides of the golf course indicating that trees had been removed once before. Questions even arise as to whether Crossley himself had planted the trees. Black residents hold the line on the issue as others rejoice in their potential humiliation by these historical documents. “They would never admit if it’s racial but they have a history,” Metcalf Jr. asserts.

What is perhaps the documentary’s most indelible moment is its turn toward the history of Section 14—the tribal lands-turned-reservation of The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, wherein Indigenous, Black, Mexican, and Filipino peoples lived amongst one another in slums without city services. After years of blocking Cahuilla land development efforts, Palm Springs officials, under the advisement of then-Mayor Frank Bogart, put in place a conservatorship over the land in 1959 that enabled the arson and demolition of Section 14 homes, and the forced removal of their residents in what a state investigation would later refer to as a “city engineered holocaust.” Accounts from a member of The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians as well as Black former Section 14 residents piece together a community made and unmade by displacement and dispossession. Issuing a formal apology in 2021, the state of California is now considering reparations for Section 14 evictees.

This “Negro eviction from Palm Springs” made way for the development of the city as a “desert playground of millionaires” and led many Black former Section 14 families to make a new home in Crossley Tracts. Today, only two of the Crossley Tracts “OG families” remain. By the documentary’s close in 2018, a unanimous city council vote has resulted in the official removal of the tamarisk trees that blocked Crossley residents from the luxury golf course. The trees have finally been removed but a subtle shadow remains over the sunny scenery. We learn that the new exposure of the long-neglected Black neighborhood has generated numerous blight complaints from locals who can’t bear the sight of Crossley Tracts. In exchange for their “million dollar view” and the notable 75% to 100% increase in their property value, these residents are now subject to more surveillance and judgment for the state of their homes. Away with the trees, in with new obstructions.

The trees, which Andre M. Perry of the Brookings Institute described as “symbolic of the walls we put up to deny Black people the opportunities to be Americans,” represent something far less articulable than national inclusion. For, if as Charles Metcalf Jr. asserts, “the city doesn’t see us as human beings,” the tamarisks were but a messy invasive frame on an abject picture. As a genre, the documentary relies upon evidence to structure its art of informative entertainment. And yet, by centering a debate that foregrounded the burden of proof, Racist Trees traces the limits of the legible claims that can be made about anti-Blackness.

“You didn’t know you couldn’t breathe until the trees were gone,” one Black resident remarks. There is no evidence to suggest her breathing was inhibited by the tamarisks. There is no evidence to suggest that the relief provided by their removal will endure.

About the Author

Jordan Taliha McDonald is an essayist, critic, cultural worker, and (sometimes) poet. She is a PhD student in English at Harvard University studying Black literature(s), rhetorical practices, and visual cultures in the Americas.

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