ITG loves a good unnecessary pairing—rom coms and treatments, masks and pasta dishes, cleansers and cookbooks—but today we’re flipping that concept on its head with some necessary reading, all by Black authors. No doubt you’ve seen the anti-racist reading lists circulating the internet, and while those mostly nonfiction works are important reading in their own right, don’t stop there. Below, a selection of novels for a good read that also supports an entire ecosystem of Black experiences. (We’ve linked all the titles to New York-based Black-owned bookstore The Lit Bar, but a full spreadsheet of local options is available here.) And while you’re at it, we’re telling you the perfect Black-owned beauty product to apply as you sift through each page. As Yaa Gyasi writes in her novel Homegoing (more on that below), “When you study history, you must ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too.” Here are our recommendations.
Jesmyn Ward’s novel tells the story of a poor, Black family in Mississippi as they deal with Hurricane Katrina… sort of. Instead of limiting the narrative to the length of the storm, or even the after, Ward extends a considerable amount of care in making sure the reader understands these characters’ before. They start off vulnerable, living in extreme poverty and concerned with two pregnancies, that of 15-year-old narrator Esch and her brother Skeetah’s dogfighting pitbull China. But the thing is, each character wants to appear strong, and this detachment is the novel’s true heartbreak. There’s a lot of waiting—for the storm, for Esch’s baby, for China to return home. It’s a harrowing and worthy experience for the reader in its own way, and a moisturizing mask is just the thing to center and relax you as you journey through the gripping narrative.
You might remember the first time you heard about the underground railroad—you were a child, and maybe you misunderstood it to be something like New York’s subway system at first. Whitehead takes the idea and runs with it, crafting a fictional world where slaves escape the south through a literal locomotive system that runs beneath their feet. It sounds dystopian and futuristic, but the fantasy world Whitehead creates is more of a reflection of reality than the history books like to admit. When paired with warped history, can you tell what’s fact and what’s fiction? Better to have Danessa Myricks’ Colorfix Glaze in tow as you read. The gooey shadow is pretty on the eyes, yes, but its squishy tube can double as a stress ball as you root for Cora to evade capture.
Yaa Gyasi’s showstopper of a novel begins in 1760s Ghana, with Maame. Maame has two daughters: Effia, who is sold into marriage with a British officer, and Esi, who is sold into slavery. Each subsequent chapter follows the lineage through eight generations as their stories unfold in parallel. Effia’s children thrive in Ghana as leaders of villages and academics, but carry the pain that working with colonizers did to their people. Esi’s children are born in America and never quite escape the Mississippi plantation, hitting roadblocks with the prison industrial complex even as the civil rights movement marches on. The story is complex, tangled—it’s a good match for Felicia Leatherwood’s Detangler Brush, which is uniquely split into nine flexible arms to gently unwind the worst knots.
Let’s just start with the plot: a Black, slave-owning surfer grows artisanal cannabis and watermelons as he fights to re-segregate his LA neighborhood. It’s… absurd! But that’s kind of the point, as each crazy accusation seems to highlight the very real, ridiculous ways we’ve been conditioned to talk about race in America. Instead of sidestepping the issues like a defensive Tomi Lahren insisting she doesn’t “see color,” Beatty illustrates them in high relief, so boldly caricatured that you can’t help but laugh out loud and then feel startled by the readiness with which you did. Pair it with Beautystat’s vitamin C serum—it’s got impressive clinical trial results for brightening scars, which is basically what a sharp piece of satire does, too.
Look, any Toni Morrison book you pick up is going to be a stunner. The Bluest Eye is popularly recommended, but it’s not to be outdone by Beloved, which doesn’t so much hit the nail on the head in regards to dealing with race in America as much as it pulls the nail through slowly, until all you can feel is the throbbing ache of its foreign presence. The story follows Sethe, a woman who moved to Ohio after escaping slavery. When a mysterious woman named Beloved shows up at her house, Sethe believes she’s a reincarnation of a daughter who died in infancy. She allows herself to become consumed with caring for this lost child, and their relationship reveals the lasting psychological effects of slavery. Pair it with Unsun’s hand cream with SPF 15, which was created by a Black woman who struggled to find sunscreen that didn’t leave a whitecast. It soothes and protects from something damaging we can’t see, a theme that Morrison explores beautifully.
If (well into your adult years) teenage coming of age stories still strike a chord, you need to read The Mothers. Bennett starts the drama in-media-res: a high school senior named Nadia who has recently lost her mother to suicide makes the decision to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. The rest of the book is spent dealing with the repercussions of that decision or, to be more precise, the relationship that precipitated it—Nadia’s abortion leaves lingering what-ifs across her romances, friendships, and relationships in her religious Black community as the years go by. The novel gives rich complexity to the experience of Black motherhood, but it’s also deeply relatable to anyone who’s ever struggled with the feelings of love, or judgment, or grief. Bennett layers each carefully and impartially in prose weighted with beautiful turns of phrase. The effect is stunning, like the Mented blush Senior Editor Ashley Weatherford had to stop a woman in public to get the name of. And after you’ve wrapped up The Mothers, mosey on over to Bennett’s latest book, The Vanishing Half.
James Baldwin’s essays collectively titled The Fire Next Time is on several of the anti-racist reading lists now circulating, and his novel about a man falsely accused of rape in ‘70s Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk is now an award-winning movie. But it’s in Another Country where all the concerns Baldwin hopes to confront through his writing finally join in symphony. Baldwin’s plot weaves complex issues of mental health, queerness, and allyship together with as many interlocking plotlines and romances as one of those bad holiday movies, but the ease of real life. Maybe the fact that it’s set in ‘50s Greenwich Village will interest you. Or maybe it’s the way Baldwin takes his time with emotional descriptions, leaving a reader pages of space to connect and digest. Either way, pair it with Oui The People’s safety razor, which also challenges expected gender roles (the one-blade model is traditionally marketed to men) in the beauty aisle.
The beauty connection in Americanah is an obvious one, as much of this story is told as a woman named Ifemelu gets her hair braided in Trenton, New Jersey. Ifemelu has left her homeland of Nigeria several years ago, but still finds herself grappling with what it means to be Black in America. Through fresh eyes, she points out what American readers are probably used to like: how we dress too casually to flex nonchalance, carry around water bottles, and above all else, pretend not to consider race when it’s staring us in the face. The reader learns along with Ifemelu. Pair it with some Alaffia, named for a traditional greeting in West African countries including Nigeria. Their Whipped Shea Butter is a multi-faceted moisturizer for stressed hair, dry skin, cracked elbows, and peeling nails.
Photo via ITG