Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

Identity, Belonging, and Community

Each character in the book must confront both personal and societal ideas regarding their identity and how their community views them. Traditional ideas about a woman’s place in South African society and in her family predated apartheid, but apartheid exacerbated these circumstances by enforcing racial segregation. Because their options for residing and working were restricted, all Black people suffered a loss of opportunity that persisted even after apartheid ended. Most men were too poor or uneducated to leave their villages or townships in search of better work. Whether their men provided or not, women bore the brunt of raising a family and running a household on limited money. Racial segregation ensured that everyone lacked perspective on how people other than themselves lived.

Trevor grows up in a world of strong women whom society views as less than their male counterparts. Even though Patricia has a career and a home of her own, she is still identified as Abel’s wife. Abel’s traditional family expects her to defer to him in all things, and while Patricia rejects outward displays of respect, she does support Abel financially even as his business fails.

This same society operating under apartheid fails to neatly categorize Noah as Black or white, often making it difficult for him to figure out where he belongs. Trevor finds belonging when the cheese boys welcome him into their tightly knit community, and he thrives there socially and financially. Because their fortunes are uncertain, however, those who earn the most take care of those who make the least. This cycle is just like the “Black tax” that Patricia describes in Chapter 5. The boys’ closeness with one another provides not only a buffer against society at large, but also against society’s expectation that they care for one another financially. Trevor is able to find community despite an identity that is considered a crime.

The Struggle for Self-Sufficiency and Survival

Every aspect of life for non-white people under apartheid was a struggle. When Patricia was young, she learned to fend for herself while living with her aunt and attending a mission school, where she learned English. This self-sufficiency was the key to her survival as she struggled first to establish herself in Johannesburg, and then to have a child. Once she had her son, she struggled to raise him in a world that deemed his very existence illegal.

Patricia’s family’s struggles do not end when apartheid ends. The societal divisions from apartheid persist, so even when Trevor attends racially diverse schools, he still struggles to find acceptance among peers who divide themselves along tribal and racial lines. When Trevor eventually finds acceptance among the Black boys from a poor neighborhood, he struggles with his own morality as their activities become illicit.

Patricia struggles to educate Trevor in the aftermath of his brush with the law. Though he temporarily strays on the wrong path, she continues to fight and to have faith that her struggles will lead to a better life and security for herself and her sons. To Patricia, her family’s survival is not an option but an imperative. In retrospect, Trevor comes to understand his mother’s motivations for strictly parenting him the way she did. She was trying to discipline him before the system did. The way his mother held him to such high standards is exactly why Trevor survived the violence of his world and reached the potential his mother knew he possessed.

The Possession of Courage and Perseverance

The characters in Born a Crime are able to achieve great success by having courage and persevering through difficult times. When Patricia was a child, she was able to tap into her survival skills and endure the poverty and unhappiness that she was born into. As a young adult, Patricia demonstrated courage by choosing to chart a course that people in her community would not expect a woman to pursue, even though that pursuit came with extra burdens. Patricia moved to Johannesburg despite knowing that it was illegal for a Black person to do so. As a woman, she risked even more danger by being so independent, and not just from the law. Trevor, too, knows that he needs to persevere if he wants to make more money, meet new people, and expand his horizons. Patricia instills this trait in Trevor from a young age.

Every time Patricia moves her family to a new neighborhood, she knowingly and courageously takes on new risks. She perseveres because she believes that her upward mobility will continue to provide the most opportunity for her family. She persists in providing educational opportunities for Trevor by sending him to schools in distant neighborhoods, and she shares with him her love for reading and language. It is not enough for Patricia that her family simply survive; she perseveres so that they will thrive. Noah’s autobiography is, in large part, a tribute to his mother whose courage, sense of purpose, and perseverance he largely credits with his eventual success.