Joe Skerrett joined the University of Massachusetts English department in 1973 where he taught courses in African American Literature, Multi-Ethnic Literature and courses in the American studies program which he chaired for a time. He was the author of several books, most recently the widely-used, Literature, Race and Ethnicity: Contesting American Identities (Longmans). He was an authority on the writer James Purdy. He also published numerous scholarly articles and delivered many presentations at professional conferences.
Among his other scholarly achievements, he helped edit the Encyclopedia of English Studies and Language Arts, and served as past president of the academic society Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS). He was known for his efforts to promote and create opportunities for scholarship on ethnicity worldwide.
He was born June 23, 1943, in Brooklyn, New York and received his bachelor's degree in English from St. Francis College in 1964. He then attended the creative writing program at Johns Hopkins University, where he received his master's degree in 1965. In 1975, he was awarded his doctorate in English from Yale University, where he specialized in 20th century African-American literature.
For a number of years, on leave from UMass, he worked as an associate of Frank Macchiarola who served as chancellor of the New York City school system.
Joe, or J.T. as he was known to his family, had many Skerrett qualities, such as a love of cooking, books, and the cultural arts. He regularly prepared marvelous meals for groups of friends, large and small, at his home in Belchertown. Guests enjoyed his talents in the kitchen, especially his desserts: crème brulée and elaborate cakes made from scratch. His annual "Christmas tree trimming party" became a local phenomenon.
Joe was a devotee of the theater, opera, and cultural exhibits, which he regularly attended, especially in Hartford and New York City. He also traveled widely to visit family members, to attend a range of professional meetings (Modern Language Association, American Studies Association, MELUS meetings), and to visit friends and former students. His travels included Europe and Brazil.
Joe enjoyed music of all kinds and had a vast collection of CD's by artists he admired. He also collected books, especially first editions by African American writers, a collection that became increasingly large and valuable. In 1996, Joe received the UMass Chancellor's Award for Multiculturalism. Established in 1993, this annual award recognizes members of the UMass community who have distinguished themselves by increasing awareness of multicultural issues on campus. In 1998, St. Francis College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Literature degree. As Mary Macchiorola, widow of the former president of the college, has written "Joe was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word, a loyal and devoted friend, as well as a humble, but brilliant scholar."
Joe had a generous heart, always ready to help those in need. He was a knowledgeable and accomplished gardener, and his home was surrounded by stunning perennial gardens, including a large collection of peonies. Inside, his home was filled with house plants of all kinds.