On February 18, 1940, a baby girl was born in Columbus, Ohio to Leroy and Helen (née Zimmerman) Robinson; they named her Brenda Lynn. That same year, her family moved to Poindexter Village, a new community that was one of the first housing development projects in the United States to be federally-funded. Poindexter Village was constructed where Blackberry Patch, a semi-rural community historically populated by African-Americans, had been located. Both communities were close-knit and their progress and success were contingent upon familial relationships, whether blood, fictive kin or communal.
Life in Blackberry Patch and, later, Poindexter Village were replete with Black cultural traditions such as storytelling, reverence for elders and promotion of creativity, and these greatly inspired Brenda. She loved to be around her family and in a video interview at her website, Aminah’s World, she recalled how her father had her learn from her elders. One elder in particular, was her great-aunt Cordelia; affectionately known as “Big Annie” which could be a Black language slang for “Big Auntie” or great-aunt.
To a young Brenda, she was especially pivotal in recounting their family’s history. Born in Georgia, Big Annie, who had been enslaved, recalled the history of their loved ones who survived the Middle Passage and life under the cruel and oppressive system of slavery. She also shared vivid stories of life in Blackberry Patch, which included vibrant persons such as The Crowman and The Chickenfoot Woman. All these themes would powerfully inform and impact Brenda for the rest of her life.
Although her father worked as a custodian in a local school and her mother managed their family as a homemaker, both were artists. From an early age, Brenda was passionate about art and her parents strongly encouraged her interests. From her mother, she learned how to sew, weave and master seamstress skills, working with buttons, fabric, needlepoint, ribbons and yarn. From her father, she learned to work with raw materials and scraps of items, ranging from charcoal, glass, leather and seashells to animal hides, clay, rope and wood. Brenda also worked with a concoction of brick dust, glue, lime, mud, pig grease, red clay and sticks that her father taught her how to make; they called this creation “hogmawg” and it was used to develop two-dimensional and three-dimensional pieces. On her website, Aminah’s World, she stated, “I began drawing at the age of three. My father would give me wood to paint on and paint in little enamel tins. My studio was under my bed … I never had any doubt in my mind about being an artist.”