Pinkins was born in Chicago, Illinois. She has four children. Her father was a police officer and insurance salesman and her mother is a former postal worker. She has two brothers, Eric Swoope and Thomas Swoope and a sister Tamera Swoope from whom she is estranged. She was interested in the arts from a young age. In high school, she studied acting at the Goodman Theatre Young Peoples Program. Aged 18, she briefly attended college and decided to pursue an acting career instead. She later returned to college, earning an undergraduate degree from Columbia College in Chicago, followed by graduate work at Carnegie Mellons music theater program, and a year at California Western School of Law in San Diego. Pinkins is probably most admired for her stage work. She won a Tony Award for her performance as Sweet Anita in Jellys Last Jam. She was nominated for her roles in Play On! and in Caroline, or Change, where she played the title role.