Gloria Naylor was born in 1950 in New York City to parents who had just imigrated from Robinsonville, Mississippi, in order to provide their children with the opportunities denied them in the segregated South. She says in an interview with Charles Rowell, “My family came out of the Mississippi Delta where they were tenant farmers. And in one generation they saw me graduate from Yale University with a master's degree” (184). Naylor's journey to Yale University, though, was not by a direct route. After high school graduation, Naylor served for seven years in her newfound faith with the Jehovah's Witnesses before going to college. Disillusioned by the political process, she had turned to the Jehovah's Witnesses hoping to find a more efficacious system for change, but that system too brought disillusionment. She turned to education, first attending Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, pursuing a nursing degree until she realized that she had little interest in medicine. She then transferred to Brooklyn College as an English major. Though she had been an introspective child, given to reading and writing, she did not imagine that becoming a writer was a realizable dream until she found the works of Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ntozake Shange when she was a student at Brooklyn College in the late 1970s.
Naylor wrote the stories that eventually became The Women of Brewster Place in a creative writing class at Brooklyn College. When she sent her first story to Essence magazine, the editor asked to see more, and Naylor's career was launched. As has happened with many African American women writers, Naylor has been criticized for her negative portrayals of black men. Her rejoinder to that criticism is notable: