An intriguing, brick-by-brick account of American history

Clarence Lusane’s Black History of the White House came out late last year and flew under the radar at most of the major book reviews. But Lusane is an elegant, impassioned writer, and the book—which is full of stories we’d never encountered in American History 101—is totally engrossing.

Lusane starts off in the 18th century, working his way up to Barack Obama’s White House. Presidents Washington, Madison, and Roosevelt (the first) come in for especially close examination, but you’ll also read about “Blind Tom” Wiggins (an autistic savant who was the first African-American to give a professional performance at the White House), James Benjamin Parker (an extremely large man who became a national hero after helping to subdue President McKinley’s assassin), and other figures who are more or less ignored by conventional historians. This is a serious, necessary book, but not a humorless one, and one of our favorite sections involves the forgotten campaign to draft Dizzy Gillespie to run against Lyndon Johnson in 1964: “Rather than ‘secretaries’ he would have ‘ministers,’” Lusane writes, “including Max Roach as Minister of Defense, bassist Charles Mingus as Minister of Peace, Malcolm X as Attorney General, composer Duke Ellington as Ambassador to the Vatican, Louis Armstrong as Minister of Agriculture, and singer Ray Charles would be in charge of the Library of Congress. Other positions were to go to Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Woody Herman, and Count Basie.”

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An intriguing, brick-by-brick account of American history