Tribes is an ambitious, and sometimes frustrating, mix of autobiography, social history and political manifesto. Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, north London, visits a Tuareg village in Niger, only later to reveal that the DNA test from which he traced these origins was probably erroneous. He poignantly describes feeling out of place as the only black child in his boarding school and a lonely executive in America. We are left wanting more of such candour, but much of the story involves Lammy unapologetically defending stances that others might have perceived as tribal.
The book skips along well, enlivened by Lammy’s own life experiences. He’s not afraid to laugh at himself: he highlights the ridiculous idea that he could have become a firefighter, as his careers adviser suggested. The book begins with Lammy taking a DNA test that reveals his tribal heritage, and ends with him uniting a group of geneticists in laughter at the idea that these tests can accurately reveal your ancestry.
There has always been more than one David Lammy, but until I read this book I didn’t realise quite how many there were. To younger readers, he might be the man who went viral after the Grenfell tragedy with an emotional denunciation of the ways in which residents had been failed, or the Twitter warrior against Brexit. Older readers may, however, remember the smooth Blair protege of the 00s, whom it sometimes seems hard to reconcile with the later version. But trying to reconcile them is arguably missing the point of this thoughtful, nuanced book, which is about learning to live with complexity rather than tearing ourselves apart over it.
If you were expecting a forensic unpacking of the two dismaying events, Windrush and Grenfell, that made him a national figure you will be disappointed. He skates over them, simply blaming the racism of the white establishment. Meanwhile most of the policy passages in the book just recycle centre-Left platitudes. When he does depart from the script — for example on how to give voice to English national feeling — he is worth listening to. The best section of the book is a sympathetic account of why people voted Brexit from a zealous Remainer MP who insists Brexit is driven by xenophobia.
Like many black people in the African diaspora Lammy yearns to illuminate his past; on a pilgrimage to Niger, he’s moved by the sense of belonging, articulated a century ago by the pan Africanist leader Marcus Garvey that “a people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without a roots”. But the question remains: what kind of history? Towards the book’s end, Lammy highlights the challenge of agreeing on a shared, sometimes ignominious national story. As long as British history is viewed through the lens of a “white past opposed to a multicultural present”, we risk perpetuating feelings of loss among segments of the population