The United States flag is an iconic symbol, one that elicits an immediate and powerful reaction. Howardena Pindell takes advantage of that involuntary response in her piece “Separate but Equal: Genocide AIDS.”

Two flags hang next to each other, one silver and the other black. Whatever your initial reaction to the flag — be it pride, disgust, or something else entirely — the installation forces you to pause as you read the names printed on both flags in the context of American symbolism. They are the names of Black and white victims of AIDS. 

This piece was made between 1991 and 1992, a decade after the AIDS crisis had begun. The red ribbon was introduced as a symbol for AIDS awareness in 1991. In 1992, AIDS was the leading cause of death for American men aged 25 to 44. The disease had become part of American life. The only stripe on either of the flags in color is a singular red line on the edge, resembling a straightened ribbon.

There is no avoiding the fact that racism is a part of America — so much so that it should be one of the first things that comes to mind with the image of our flag. Pindell takes this aspect of our culture and puts this in the context of the AIDS crisis. Despite differing histories and privileges during their lives, all of the people listed on this piece of art are victims of the same disease. Even when the quality of treatments and medical care differed, they all suffered from the AIDS epidemic. Separate in life, but equal in death.